Meet the Keeper: Lauren Irk

Lauren has worked as a zoo keeper at the Greensboro Science Center for about four and a half years. She knew early on that she wanted to work with animals, but didn’t want to become a veterinarian. The primary reason was that she didn’t want the responsibility of euthanizing animals. “It would be too hard,” Lauren said. “I would cry every time.”

So, she took her passion for animal care along a different route by enrolling in Davidson County Community College’s Zoo and Aquarium Science program. During the program, she became an intern at the Greensboro Science Center and, in her second year, was hired part-time by the Center. Since then, she has worked her way up and is now a full time keeper in the Center’s herpetology department.

Her primary responsibilities include making diets, feeding, administering medications when necessary and general cleaning. Although general cleaning does include the dreaded “scooping of the poop,” she did note that reptiles don’t go to the bathroom as often as mammals… which, um, we guess is a job perk…

But, to Lauren, the real perks are a bit different. She loves talking to kids. “They’re funny,” she said, “especially when they know stuff already.”

She also enjoys it when new animals arrive. It’s always exciting for her to have something different to work with – especially if it’s a new species.

“I like being a female in the reptile department,” Lauren said. It is typically a male-dominated field and people are often surprised to hear what Lauren does for a living. However, Lauren is surprised at the number of female counterparts she has in zoos across the country. So take heart, ladies, if your passion lies in pythons, you’re not alone.

Lauren with a skink

Keeper, Lauren, with one of her charges – a blue tongued skink.

While you might think the danger of a reptile keeper’s career lies in the rattlesnake, copperhead or Burmese python, don’t be fooled. The real threats are tortoises… “I’ve been stampeded by tortoises,” Lauren admits. “If there’s food, they will stampede. They’ll run you over for it.” (Note: no zoo keepers were harmed in the telling of this anecdote.)

Another interesting thing you might not know about a reptile keeper’s job is that they spend time training their animals. That’s right, they can be taught! The Center’s tortoises have learned to target and are now learning to pick up their feet when asked. And Maggie, the rhinoceros iguana, is learning to wear a harness.

All of the keepers in the herpetology department get along great, Lauren said. They each have specific jobs they do and specific animals to care for each day, but they also have a little time to have fun. While they do tend to goof off occasionally, one thing they always take seriously is the health and well-being of their animals.

Meet the Keeper: Rachael Campbell

In honor of National Zoo Keeper Week, we took a few minutes to sit down with some of our amazing zoo keepers and learn more about them and the role they play here at the Greensboro Science Center. As Senior Keeper, Rachael Campbell, explains, there’s much more to the job than scooping poop and cuddling animals.

Rachael and Kisa

Rachael giving tiger, Kisa, medication.

Rachael always wanted to work with animals. In college, she began exploring internships at zoos and was lucky enough to secure a position with Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa. During her internship, she worked primarily in the petting zoo area and assisted a bit with the bird collection. Just 3 months after graduating college, she was hired by the same zoo.

And so began her zoo keeper career… and it’s a difficult one.

“So many people want to work with animals,” Rachael says. But the job is much more than that, which is why zoo keepers are college educated, degree-holding professionals.

Being a zoo keeper requires extensive knowledge of animal habitats. It also requires heavy labor as keepers are responsible for building and enhancing exhibits. Keepers also make diets, train animals… and yes, scoop poop.

The schedule is demanding. Keepers are often the first to arrive at the GSC. They work holidays, nights and weekends and in all kinds of weather, from oppressive heat to ice storms.

Being a zoo keeper also comes with its share of difficult moments. Rachael says the most challenging part of the job to her is losing an animal. It’s also tough when an animal gets sick and there’s no obvious reason as to why. Keepers spend their days caring for and bonding with their animals, so you can imagine how hard an illness or loss can be for them.

With that in mind, one might wonder why zoo keepers keep doing what they do. Well, being a keeper has its perks. How many people can say they’ve played “got your paw” with a lioness?

Rachael can.

At Blank Park Zoo, she developed a very close bond with a lioness. The lion would stick her declawed front paws under the fence for Rachael to grab. When she got her paw, the lion would pull her paw back, turn her head to the side, open her mouth, and stick her paws under the fence again for another round!

To Rachael, that’s the most rewarding part of her job: building relationships with exotic species and having them recognize her and do what she asks (8 times out of 10, she qualifies).

From humble beginnings as an intern with the Blank Park Zoo to her current position of Senior Keeper at the Greensboro Science Center, Rachael has worked her way up over the past several years. She credits her success to her willingness to do the grunt work. She understood early on that being a zookeeper has its share of less-than-glamorous work. Her professional attitude allows her to appreciate that you learn as you go in this profession and the only way to succeed is to be open to different tasks and experiences.

We’re not sick, we’re molting!

All birds molt, or lose feathers, on a yearly basis. Some birds molt a few feathers at a time, while other birds, such as penguins, molt all of their feathers at once. The total process generally lasts between 4-6 weeks.

Molting Vs. Not Molting

Comparative view: The penguin on the right is in the process of molting.

Imagine having the same sweater on for one whole year…during this time, it might become worn out and need to be replaced. This is essentially how penguins’ feathers work. Their feathers become worn out and broken over the course of the year and it is necessary for a new set of feathers to replace the old set.

There are 3 stages to molt:

  1. Pre-molt
  2. Dropping feathers
  3. Gaining weight back

1. For several weeks leading up to molt, penguins begin gorging themselves with fish. Generally, a penguin will eat approximately 1lb of fish each day. Leading up to their molt, a penguin can eat up to 40% of their body weight daily. These extra calories allow new feathers to be produced under their skin. A penguin usually weighs 7-8lbs, but after bulking up pre-molt, they can weigh up to 11lbs.

2. Once the penguin has reached their maximum weight, they begin to drop feathers. This process generally lasts 1-2 weeks. During this time, the animal is fasting (not eating) and allowing all the feathers to drop off its body while the new feathers come through. They must remain on land during this process due to their lack of waterproofing. They live off their body fat stored from the previous weeks.

Molting Penguin

Molting Penguin

3. The last part of the process, which entails the penguin’s body recovering, lasts another 1-2 weeks. During this time, they gain waterproofing once again on their feathers and begin hunting fish to regain all the weight lost.

Molting generally happens once a year at approximately the same time for each bird (typically between April-Aug). So the next time you see one of us looking a little puffy and uncomfortable, don’t worry, we are just updating our wardrobe. Soon we will be ready to show off our new sleek, shiny new coat of feathers.

See That Puffer Fish Puff!

Shark Reef is home to two porcupine puffer fish: Lindsey and Beth. These creatures are generally quite shy and typically retreat if faced with something they deem dangerous. They are fairly clumsy swimmers, however, and can’t always get away in time. Luckily, puffer fish also have a rather unique “fight” at the ready when they can’t take “flight” from potential predators fast enough.

By ingesting huge amounts of water, a porcupine puffer fish can quickly turn itself into a giant, spiky ball virtually impossible to swallow. If that’s not enough of a deterrent for a particularly persistent predator, these fish also secrete a toxic skin substance that tastes terrible and is potentially lethal to other fish.

They Grow Up So Fast…

Caterpillars grow up so fast! It only took 19 days for our little Monarch caterpillars to grow 2,000 times their hatching size and slide into their chrysalis. Unlike the caterpillar of a moth that wraps itself in a cocoon made of silk, a butterfly caterpillar actually sheds, or pupates its exoskeleton to become a pupa.

You know a Monarch caterpillar is ready to pupate when it attaches itself to a sturdy object with a button of silk and hangs upside-down. When hanging upside down they curl up slightly and look like the letter “J.” This is called, “hanging in J.” The caterpillars will “hang in J” for eight hours before they begin to pupate. Then, it only takes 20 minutes to form the pupa!

Hanging in J

Hanging in J

The pupa, or chrysalis, is a beautiful jade-green and it even has a golden crown around the top! The Monarch pupa will stay in its chrysalis for about 10 days as a pupa.

Monarch Pupa

Monarch Pupa

You can see all of our chrysalis in the Greensboro Science Center lobby by the kinetic sculpture. You can also come for a very special event this Friday at 10:00 AM for the dedication of our Monarch Waystations. The event will include some very special guests and a Monarch butterfly release, so come flutter by!

Friday also marks the debut of a brand new 3-D OmniSphere show, Flight of the Butterflies. In this incredible film, you’ll have the chance to join hundreds of millions of real butterflies on an amazing journey to a remote and secret hideaway. Plus, hear about the true story of one scientist’s 40-year search to unravel the mystery of Monarchs: where do they go each fall?

Flight of the Butterflies

Flight of the Butterflies

Flight of the Butterflies will be playing in the OmniSphere through January 9, 2015. Check out the complete schedule on our website: http://www.greensboroscience.org/events/omnisphereshows/index.shtml

Magnificent Monarchs!

This tiny egg, the size of a pinhead, holds a creature that will grow and change into a magnificent Monarch Butterfly! This entire process takes a mere 30 days.

Monarch Butterfly Egg

Monarch Butterfly Egg

The egg was laid on a very special plant- a milkweed. Milkweeds are the ONLY plant a monarch caterpillar will eat. There are over 100 species of milkweed, 75 here in the U.S. Unfortunately, milkweed is losing habitat to development and agriculture, and being eliminated by herbicides used along roadsides and farm areas.

The Monarch butterfly population is measured by the number of acres they inhabit during seasonal hibernation. In 2003, Monarchs inhabited 27.48 acres. In 2013 they inhabited a scant 1.65 acres. Efforts are now underway to plant milkweed to help bring back Monarch butterflies. The Greensboro Science Center has planted three Monarch waystations in our zoo to provide milkweed as well as other nectar and host plants for butterflies.

Milkweed and Monarchs need our help! Learn more while you enjoy our breathtaking new 3-D movie, “Flight of the Butterflies,” which starts June 6th. Member preview night is Friday, May 30th, from 6:00 PM to 8:00PM and includes the movie, snacks, milkweed seed give-away, crafts for kids, and more! For more information on the member preview night, visit http://greensboroscience.org/support/membership/documents/FOBPreview.pdf.

You can keep up with the progress of the Monarch caterpillars when you visit the Greensboro Science Center, or follow them on our blog.

Let there be light!

Chemiluminescence Demo Video

Read on to learn about what’s happening in the video above:

Our scientist pours two solutions, labeled Solution A and Solution B, into two separate beakers (these solutions are respectively a Luminol mixture and Hydrogen Peroxide). [NOTE: Luminol is a “versatile” chemical that happens to be very good at demonstrating the turning of chemical potential energy into radiant, or light, energy.] He empties the two beakers into the tube apparatus, turns the lights off, then the magic happens as the solutions combine to make a glowing liquid! THIS is chemical potential energy turned radiant energy.

Some glowing “stuff” gets its light by way of a reaction called chemiluminescence. Chemiluminescent reactions are chemical reactions that yield light without producing much heat, which we think is pretty amazing. What else undergoes chemiluminescent reactions? To list a couple of common occurrences: fireflies and lightsticks.

Firefly

Firefly. Photo courtesy of nativeplantwildlifegarden.com

Why are we particularly excited about glowing stuff? Because Pajama Jam is almost upon us (tomorrow night), and there’s going to be a ton of glowing stuff there – glow-in-the-dark bowling, glow-in-the-dark ring toss, glow-in-the-dark bead necklaces, and more! AND now you know why these things can glow without burning us – they are undergoing chemical reactions which yield light with the production of very little heat…unlike, say, the light produced by a conventional lightbulb.

Tickets for Pajama Jam are available online here. We hope to see you there!