Snake necklaces, cuddly skunks and hungry otters ... a zookeeper’s day

  • Thursday, July 24, 2014

Taylor Griffith/South Strand News Gabriella was a little more than surprised when Tangerine, a Reverse Okeetee red rat snake, began moving behind her neck.

Photos

It’s easy to count the bird calls...one, two, three…. Nine different kinds of birds chirping, whistling and squawking in the Brookegreen Gardens Lowcountry Zoo parking lot at 8:15 on a Saturday morning.

Even more beautiful than the flutter of a Cardinal’s wing overhead is the glittering dragonfly that floats by, and the bumblebee that soon follows. The bee moseys over, as if to say hello, before flying away again.

Almost as quiet as the not-so-quiet parking lot, is the golf cart that comes zipping over, Andrea DeMuth at the wheel. DeMuth is the vice president and curator of zoological collections, but today she also fulfills the role of tour guide for the second-ever Zookeeper for a Day program.

She explains it’s her job to keep the guest on schedule.

“We had to sit there and think about how much we could cram into one day,” she said. “Then the keepers each tweaked it, and we try to have different experiences each time.”

DeMuth says staying on schedule is the hardest part, especially if something unexpected happens. Today she’s worried about the Spanish goats; several of the females are pregnant and if one goes into labor it will throw off the swing of the schedule.

But for now the schedule is on track and it’s time to pick up the guest zookeeper.

Gabriella De la Vera, 14, is waiting with Mary Meyer, Brookgreen’s education specialist who started the program.

Gabriella, who lives near Charlotte, N.C., wants to be a zookeeper one day. She’s visiting her grandmother who lives in Pawleys Island, who saw the advertisement for the program and signed up her granddaughter.

The first stop on the program is to let the goats out for the day.

First the females and kids, and then the males. The goats are kept in small pens at night to prevent unwanted breeding and protect against predators. DeMuth says predators at Brookgreen include raccoons, wild fox and the occasional coyote.

Next, it’s back to the zoo kitchen to make breakfast… and lunch, and dinner.

Fish, mice, hardboiled eggs, lettuce and a few “mystery meat” blends are on the menu for the variety of domestic animals at the zoo.

A normal kitchen may smell of simmering sauces and baking goodies; this kitchen has the distinct smell of fish, mixed with the tangy scent of raw meat and an underlying smell of oats and grain. It’s a unique combination, one the zookeepers warn Gabriella to prevent it lingering on her clothes and body by wearing gloves and washing hands often.

Nick Barlow, the summer intern, teaches Gabriella about each of the animals’ diets before showing her how to portion and store the food. Then it’s Gabriella’s turn to get her hands dirty, portioning out “feline” meat product (the meat blend specifically designed for feline animals such as fox) and fish for each of the seven otters.

Barlow says most of the otters were rescued from construction sites, and a few were orphaned.

That’s how a majority of the animals find their way to the Lowcountry Zoo – while a few come from other zoos, most were abandoned, injured, or have some other kind of imparement that restricted them from being returned to the wild.

“I think people like to know that when they come here,” says DeMuth. She notes the zoo is almost like a rehabilitation center for the animals.

Once each of the otters – Wesley, Buttercup, Bo, Toko, Chunk, TNT and Elliott – have their food portioned, Barlow steps back and zookeeper Heather Cox takes over, teaching Gabriella about the birds of prey.

The birds, which include turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, a great horned owl and barred owls, are housed in the raptor aviary.

Bird diets are similarly constructed; a certain amount of “birds of prey” meat product, and for the lucky few, a couple of tasty mice.

Gabriella seems to be handling the smells and feels of the strange food ok, but Cox says not all people are as receptive.

“People always say ‘oh, that’s so cool,’ and yes, it is, there are cool moments, but it’s not exactly like we sit around and pet the animals all the time. There is a lot of care involved, we have to meet their needs because they can’t do it themselves.”

Cox explaines, for example, one of the owls has a permanently clenched claw, so it will never be able to catch its own food in the wild.

During a break, Gabriella and Cox talk about what it really takes to become a zookeeper. She mentions degrees in biology, marine biology, environmental science and animal science all can lead to work in zoos.

Internships and volunteer work are also vital for making it in the industry.

“I’m already signed up to take animal science classes in high school,” says Gabriella.

Cox says that’s another reason the Zookeeper for a Day program is useful – to give young people with an interest in the career a chance to see what it’s really like, which may help them decide.

“She’ll get a little taste of everything,” Cox says.

The zoological team at Brookgreen has five members: the curator, DeMuth, an assistant curator, and three zookeepers. When they’re lucky, like this summer, they also have an intern, DeMuth says.

The curator and assistant curator spend most of their time working on larger projects, such as the upcoming creation of a water fowl exhibit, while the zookeepers take care of the day-to-day responsibilities.

Their daily chores include preparing meals and feeding the animals; training the animals to perform certain tasks, like putting their paws up to receive medicine; interacting with “program animals” to keep them friendly and prepared for human contact during tours; and enrichment, like giving them new toys to play with.

The zookeepers work every day of the week, even Christmas, to make sure their animals are taken care of.

Two keepers are on staff each day, one with a 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift, and the other with an 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift.

In total, there are around 240 animals in the zoo, all domestic [local], and all of which need attention.

Some require lots of work, such as the otters that need toys and feeding three times a day, while others like the goats and deer and very low-maintenance.

Gabriella and Kenny Robinson, who has been a zookeeper at Brookgreen for more than 30 years, take their cart into the woods to the deer pen.

Seven deer are in the smaller pen, which needs food. After filling the trough, Gabriella walks out alone into the field to meet the white-tailed deer.

Slowly, carefully, she approaches and a few of the deer come up to her. The almost-silence has returned, this time filled with crunching leaves as Gabriella calmly walks toward the timid animals, a small giggle as she gets to pet one, and a quiet call from DeMuth to stop and pose for a picture.

The teenager is all smiles again back in the reptile room with Barlow, who shows her how to read the temperature on the turtle and snake aquariums.

He takes out a red rat snake and teaches Gabriella to hold him. Next a Reverse Okeetee red rat snake comes out. Her name is Tangerine, and as a former pet, she’s very friendly. Maybe a little too friendly for Gabriella; a look of surprise and horror crosses her face as Tangerine slides across the back of her neck, through her hair, and out the other side, draping around her like a necklace.

DeMuth snaps a quick picture for Meyer, who will put it on Gabriella’s completion certificate.

“When most people think of Brookgreen Gardens they think of the sculpture gardens, but our zoo exhibits are up to par as far as some of the big zoos go,” notes Meyer.

DeMuth says the Lowcountry Zoo is one of 224 zoos and aquariums nationwide accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“Our zoo is a big deal, and we want to have more people realize that,” Meyer adds.

This is where the Zookeeper for a Day program comes in; now that the two experimental trials are out of the way, Brookgreen will launch the full Zookeeper for a Day program soon, with program dates each month. The experience is open to those 12 years and older.

Some may see the projected $150 price tag as a deterrent, but Gabriella says the day only confirms her aspirations.

“There is more work involved than people would think, but it’s worth it. It’s cool to say you worked with the animals, especially if you enjoy them.”

At 2 p.m. it will be time for Gabriella to go home, and on her way out she may notice another kind of Brookgreen magic that does not exist in silence: speedy footsteps as children run toward the otter exhibit, squeals of delight from a tourgoer as a docent allows them to pet a skunk and laughter as families leave the Lowcountry Zoo.

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