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Zookeeper David Kessler chokes up as volunteers say goodbye to him Jan. 9 at the National Zoo in Washington. For nearly 40 years, he’d taken care of the animals, particularly small mammals. They’d taken care of him, too.

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Zookeeper's odyssey decades in the making

WASHINGTON — On his last night as the longest-serving keeper at the National Zoo, David Kessler checks and rechecks the locks on the enclosures in the Small Mammal House. He collects his farewell gifts and mementos and softly narrates to himself what needs to be done. “OK, lights out here, good. Hi, babies!” he says to Reuben and Jolla, the howler monkey couple. “Aagh, g’night, sweetheart. Did I wake you up? I’m sorry.” He checks the seven timers on the lights, saying “timer” aloud at each. He’s not thinking, he says, about how this January night is the last time after 39 years, two-thirds of his life, at the zoo. Now Gus the rock hyrax — who looks like a four-pound guinea pig but is more closely related to the elephant — catches his attention in the dark. It’s as if the little guy knows something is up.

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