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.”

Senior Living Community for Lemurs

The Greensboro Science Center is home to a lemur exhibit made up of three lemur species: ring-tailed lemurs, red ruffed lemurs and a mongoose lemur. Both our red ruffed lemurs and mongoose lemur are considered geriatric at this point, so special attention is given to this group to ensure they remain happy and comfortable. Part of this special attention entails efforts to ensure they remain socialized as they continue to age.

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Ara and Jethys on exhibit

At 32 years old, Ara is one of the oldest known female red ruffed lemurs in North America. With lemurs having an average lifespan ranging in the 20s, Ara is very special. Such an impressive status as hers means extra love and care from her keepers, including close monitoring of the temperature in her living space as well as her eating habits. Last year, her caregivers noticed that Ara was exhibiting some health problems which led to her being taken off exhibit. Our keepers knew she could potentially become lonely without the social interaction offered by the others lemurs on exhibit, so they found a solution: Jethys.

Jethys, our second red ruffed lemur, came to us from the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. At 25 years old, she too, is a senior lemur and therefore seemed the perfect pal for Ara. Both ladies lost their original companions but are now strongly bonded together. Since Ara has been off exhibit, she has been constantly accompanied by her BFF Jethys, who has become quite protective of her elderly friend.

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Mongoose lemur, Che

Keepers are now attempting to add a third member to this seniors club, a 26-year-old mongoose lemur named Che (pronounced Sh-ay). In the past, Che spent all of his time with his daughter, Isabella. Due to a tumor that led to Isabella’s euthanization several months ago, Che is now flying solo. Our ring-tailed lemur group didn’t take to him very well, but we’re feeling hopeful that Ara and Jethys can make up for that.

Currently, keepers are helping the lemurs get to know each other via a “howdy” – a process in which the animals are placed in adjacent spaces where they can see, smell and perhaps even touch each other while still separated by a barrier. Although the protective Jethys hasn’t quite embraced this newcomer, we’re feeling optimistic that as the trio continue to become acquainted, we’ll soon see them peacefully occupying neighboring spaces. Much like humans, social interaction is important for all lemurs, providing the mental stimulation they need to stay healthy and happy. Our dedicated team of animal care experts are doing everything in their power to make our lemurs’ golden years great ones.

Life as a Senior Big Cat

More than 10 years ago, the Conservators Center, a North Carolina educational non-profit dedicated to providing a specialized home for select carnivore species, had accepted the placement of 14 lions and tigers that were part of a large confiscation of animals living in unacceptable conditions. Four of the female large cats were pregnant and delivered cubs shortly after their arrival at the Conservators Center. Since the Greensboro Science Center had a new tiger exhibit with no tigers, we and the Conservators Center formed a partnership to provide a home for two of the tiger cubs – siblings Axl and Kisa.

With Kisa’s passing in 2016, Axl now occupies the exhibit alone. While this may sound like a lonely situation for Axl, tigers are typically solitary animals, and ever since his solo stint began, we’ve watched him become more active and exhibit more natural tiger behaviors than before. With Kisa having been the playful troublemaker, Axl has now had the chance to let his unique personality shine.

Captive tigers have an average life expectancy of 16-20 years, with their wild counterparts averaging 10-15 years. Our 13-year-old Axl is considered a geriatric animal, and as with all of our animals experiencing the various stages of life, our animal staff are constantly altering and reevaluating the care he receives.

Rachael Feeding Axl

Keeper Rachael feeding Axl his morning meal

They’ve noticed that he’s become a little more resistant to eating, so to compensate, his diet has been changed over to a special higher calorie senior diet. His keepers have also been feeding him more whole prey. Some of his favorites include rabbits, beef and deer. In addition, he’s recently been receiving half of his diet in the morning and half in the afternoon, making it more likely that he’ll eat what is offered to him. He’s lost a little of his weight, but this is no cause for concern as it remains on par for tigers his age. Our team weighs him every two weeks to make sure his caloric needs continue being met.

Beyond changes in his eating habits, Axl has exhibited the occasional asthma flare-up. In response, our animal care team is keeping a very close eye on his breathing and treating him as needed. He’s also just received a physical and will continue to undergo those on a regular basis, as always. Keepers have even trained him to present his tail so that our vet staff can easily draw blood to verify continued proper functioning of his organs.

Axl Blood Draw

Axl presents his tail so vet staff can draw blood

Rachael Brushing Axl

Axl enjoying being brushed!

Unfortunately for us, wild animals tend to hide symptoms of illness until it’s too late, but Axl’s team of caregivers continues to do everything in their power to prevent issues and respond to his needs as they become evident. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying his daily brushings and continues to entertain visitors while on exhibit. Keeper Rachael Campbell, Axl’s primary keeper, describes him as “more laidback than ever!”

You can stop by Animal Discovery Zoo and visit Axl every day between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Just steer clear of the tiger spray zones!