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!

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.

A Keeper’s Role: Lauren

The Role of a Zoo Keeper in the Herp Department

Zoo Keepers in our Herpetology Department are responsible for the care of our reptiles and amphibians as well as the insects and arachnids in Bug Discovery. They also play an important role as conservationists and frontline educators. Each day, our Herp Keepers begin with a meeting to make sure staff is all on the same page. They catch each other up on the latest developments regarding their animals and exhibits and go over things to do that day.

Lauren Teaching Maggie To Station

Keeper Lauren Teaching Maggie, the Rhinoceros Iguana, To Station

After this morning meeting, they begin the day by performing general maintenance in each exhibit. Each morning exhibit husbandry such as cleaning waste, adding fresh water, bedding changes, water quality checks, and water changes for aquatic herps are performed,  and enrichment items are also added – even for reptiles!  From there, they move on to making diets and working on projects such as updating or redoing exhibits. They may also spend some time searching the grounds for logs, rocks, etc. needed for exhibits.

Herp Keepers also participate in Keeper Talks, including a special 3:00 Keeper Talk featuring a crocodile feeding on Wednesdays and Sunday from June through August (weather permitting). Throughout the day, they try to take a few minutes to visit with guests and answer any questions they may have about animals in their care.

The day ends with afternoon feedings and a final walk through to check on each animal before heading out for the night.

About Lauren

Lauren is a Zoo Keeper in our Herpetology Department who came to the Greensboro Science Center in December of 2009. Her favorite part of working at the GSC is talking with the public – especially when they take special interest in the animals she cares for.

Her favorite animal is Maggie, the Rhinoceros Iguana. She has been training her to “station,” a process designed to help with food aggression. When Lauren tells Maggie to station, she will walk onto her platform where she is rewarded with food. Lauren is then able to put down her food bowl without Maggie interfering. If Maggie disobeys, she is subjected to a time out which means Lauren leaves the room for a minute. Maggie is learning that when she disobeys, it takes longer for her to get her food. She is also learning to “target” which means she walks to the target (a tennis ball on a stick) and taps it with her nose. When she follows instructions, she’s rewarded with food. This process allows keepers to direct her where to go when necessary.

Maggie Learning To Target

Maggie Learning To Target