John Linehan, president and chief executive officer of Zoo New England, runs the Franklin Park and Stone zoos, but it’s his wife, Julie, who presides over the Linehan zoo.
No lions, tigers, or bears, but the couple and their four children — Jack, 14, Shannon, 12, Kevin, 10, and Kelly, 7 — live in a small, three-story house jam-packed with animals, mostly rescues.
“Everyone calls the zookeeper when there’s any animal problem,” says Julie, who notes the irony, because she’s the one who usually adopts the strays.
As Julie sits in a green rocking chair on the front lawn and John stands beside her, Mac, a Border collie, jumps on her lap as though proving that Julie is head zookeeper at home. Mac lived across the street until the neighbors couldn’t care for such an active dog. The Linehans adopted him. Julie is training him in obedience and agility at the Brockton MSPCA, where she recently signed up as a foster parent.
Her first assignment there was caring for an abandoned, pregnant cat. The Linehans are now raising and socializing the seven kittens. All four children slept in the den beside the newborns the first eight days.
Two other cats live permanently with the family. Boomerang, a black one, climbed into Julie’s car three times at her sons’ baseball games before she agreed to take him home. Skippy, a long-coated tiger cat, joined the family after friends found him and couldn’t keep him.
Sammy, an Alaskan husky mix, is a retired sled dog previously owned by former zoo director Brian Rutledge. At Rutledge’s request, John took him in after Rutledge’s other dogs became aggressive toward Sammy for refusing to pull the sled.
The family also has an adopted white rabbit, African clawed frogs raised from tadpoles, and fish. But no snakes.
“All the kids want snakes,” says John, “but Julie’s resistant.” Perhaps it’s because one morning last year, she opened the shower door and screamed when she found a big, black snake inside. John and the Russian rat snake had been guests on a late-night talk show, and he planned to return it to the zoo the next day.
Julie, 42, a reading specialist at Oldham School in Norwood, earned two master’s degrees in education from Bridgewater State College and is working toward a doctorate. While she attends classes, John sometimes takes the children to work. Once, when Julie asked how their evening went, the oldest, Shannon, nonchalantly replied, “Daddy used me for bait with the lions.”
Apparently, John needed to lure a lion inside its den because it was damaging a Jeep in the exhibit. Since lions tend to focus on children’s movements as if they were “Tender Vittles,” John says, Shannon climbed along the outside of the exhibit from near the Jeep toward the lion’s sleeping quarters. The lion followed her. Mission accomplished.
“The kids have been at the zoo all their lives,” says John, 44. He sometimes brings one or more with him on evening rescues, newborn feedings, or other emergencies. “For the kids to be right in front of a lion is no big deal,” he adds.
As John talks, his youngest daughter, Kelly, climbs on and off her father’s shoulders, sometimes flipping upside down like a monkey. Later, she places her pet rat, Minnie, on her father’s back. It crawls around his neck as he shows a visitor their home.
The Linehans and their home zoo somehow manage to squeeze into the compact home the couple purchased six years ago for its location on a quiet cul-de-sac. Julie recalls telling the children so many times that their new house was “small” that when they finally moved in, Shannon, then 6, was relieved she didn’t have to bend down to enter.
Their neighborhood borders dozens of acres of woods, complete with two ponds used for skating and sailing. The land is privately owned, but John, active in Stoughton’s conservation and open space committee, is helping the town preserve it.
“It’s picture perfect, undeveloped,” he says, and Julie adds, “It’s like Norman Rockwell land here.”
The only thing not typically Rockwellian are the excuses John uses for coming home late. Among the more memorable, recalls Julie: ” `I can’t get the gorillas to come in,’ and `I’m helping my camel deliver,’ and, `Someone sent the wrong wildebeest.’ ”
John says he loves his job: “There’s something new every day.” That seems to be true at home, too.