GSC Penguin Keeper Shares South African Experience

IMG_0307GREENSBORO, NC — Shannon Anderson, lead penguin keeper at the Greensboro Science Center (GSC), spent 10 days in South Africa assisting with the rescue, rehabilitation and release of seabirds at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).Anderson’s participation was part of SANCCOB’S Animal Professional Experience, an exchange program for penguin keepers wishing to apply their husbandry knowledge in order to assist with the conservation and welfare of wild penguin populations. Her experience was sponsored by the GSC’s Conservation and Research Grant, funding which offers GSC staff the opportunity to pursue a conservation or research project.

Anderson worked side by side with the organization’s bird rehabilitation staff and volunteers, practicing her current skills and learning how to care for sick, injured, oiled, and abandoned African penguins and other seabirds. Most of her time was spent working in the chick rearing unit, where she was responsible for as few as eight chicks and sometimes as many as 23. There, her responsibilities were preparing and administering food and medications – which included tube feeding chicks four times each day – as well as cleaning the pens and reporting welfare checks.

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Anderson says she learned a lot during her time at SANCCOB. The autonomy of the work reiterated how capable she is at husbandry and affirmed the depth of knowledge she has about African penguins. She enjoyed the opportunity of working with wild penguins, which was far different from her zookeeper work. Anderson says, “It was very different working with wild birds. We were encouraged to be rough. There was no talking. We didn’t handle the birds. You didn’t caudle them, you pushed them to meet milestones to keep them on track with their development and growth. In the end, the chicks were going to rejoin the colony and they had to have the skills necessary to survive. We didn’t want them to get imprinted or they’d just end up needing additional human intervention.” Anderson says that this approach has proven successful for SANCCOB, which boasts an 85% success rate of returning birds to the wild following admission.

Anderson’s experience in South Africa greatly contributed to the conservation of wild birds in her care, but it also gave her new knowledge that she was able to apply at the GSC. Shortly after she arrived home in late December, Anderson found a compromised egg in one of the nest boxes. By following SANCCOB’s protocols regarding incubation, humidity, temperature, and timing, she was successfully able to hatch the chick using sterile forceps and precise timing. All the skills applied to make sure this chick survived, she learned during her time in South Africa. She also took the skills learned from working in SANCCOB’s ICU unit to create a new diet for an ill bird, leading to that bird’s quick recovery. Anderson will admit the confidence to take the lead and use those skills also had something to do with her time at SANCCOB.

Anderson was one of three staff members who received project funding through the GSC’s Conservation and Research Grant program. The GSC’s staff can apply for funds to support research projects, conservation work or relevant professional development. Applicants must submit a written application, provide a presentation to the research committee and, if funded, present a program recap to the GSC’s board and staff.

The GSC has long supported SANCCOB via its annual Tuxedo Trot, a 5K and Kids’ Fun Run designed specifically to raise funds for endangered African penguins. The event, which has raised $50,000 since its inception in 2013, will return on Saturday, April 27, 2019. More information about the event can be found online at http://www.tuxedotrot.com.

Lindsey Zarecky, VP of Conservation & Research at the GSC said, “The GSC Research Committee was thrilled to send Shannon to assist with a conservation organization we have supported for years. We receive thank you letters, photos, progress reports, and field updates from SANCCOB, but to see the glow in the eyes of someone who got to experience wild penguin conservation makes our 5K fundraiser so much more meaningful.” When we asked Shannon what her major takeaway was from this trip she said, “In our hearts, zookeepers want to do this, we want to make a difference, and that is why we work with animals. But you never know if you will actually get a chance to use your skills. This trip just made everything worthwhile.”

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.