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Springing into action for native wildlife

It’s a lovely morning at the Zoo. Although there’s still a chill in the air, I can feel the promise of increasingly warmer days ahead. I can see African lion Hondo’s breath as he greets the morning with a few roars. Around the corner, southern ground hornbills Zazu and Gumby serenade me with their lovely duet. Then I notice another sound, farther away, that’s familiar but not a regular part of my morning walk through the Zoo. 

As I approach my office, I discover the source – a huge flock of red-winged blackbirds. While this species lives in Georgia (and throughout the continental U.S.) year-round, I can only recall seeing them in big concentrations like this around this time of year. I make a mental note to look them up online when I have a chance. As I enjoy the white noise of their chattering throughout the day, I think how smart these birds are to choose Zoo Atlanta for their gathering site, and how lucky I am to work somewhere so friendly to native wildlife. 

In addition to the hundreds of animals (representing about 200 species) who are officially part of our animal population, our team generally considers the native species that choose to live on Zoo grounds to be under our care too. We may not provide them with daily food (at least, not directly – I’m sure they take advantage of opportunities to scavenge what the Zoo animals leave behind in their outdoor habitats) or regular veterinary care, but we certainly take wildlife stewardship seriously around here. If any animal on Zoo grounds needs help, there’s pretty much always an expert just a radio call away. 

Although Zoo Atlanta does not accept injured or orphaned animals for rehabilitation, many of our team members are familiar with the most important step in that process: recognizing when it is and is not necessary to intervene with wildlife. When help is warranted for an animal found on Zoo grounds, dedicated team members are there to assist. The Veterinary Team regularly receives calls about native wildlife on Zoo grounds needing help. But what happens next? 

Like just about every other aspect of animal care, it depends on the unique details of the situation. First, it’s important to be aware of laws that may restrict who is permitted to interact with wildlife and to what degree. Within the parameters of any relevant regulations, the Veterinary Team hatches a plan to support the best possible outcome for the animal. 

When an animal needs prolonged or intensive care, our team typically calls one of three local wildlife rehabilitation centers for assistance: Animal Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE), Chattahoochee Nature Center, or Wild Nest Bird Rehab. Zoo Atlanta does not have official partnerships with these organizations, but several Zoo team members, from volunteers to Veterinary Technicians, volunteer their personal time with them and know which one will be best able to help the animal in need. 

When minor, short-term (1-2 days) care is all they need, the animal might stay in a designated room of the current vet clinic here at the Zoo. This room is separated from any space used for Zoo animals to minimize the risk of spreading zoonotic diseases between populations. The Rollins Animal Health Center, which is currently under construction and set to open later this summer, will not have a designated space for native wildlife. However, when other operations move to the new facility, the current space can be expanded to increase the capacity for our team to support our native neighbors. It’s indirect, but still a benefit of the new facility. 

As we wait for summer, we can enjoy the warming weather of spring. Our paths may be more likely to cross with those of local wildlife doing the same thing. The websites linked above have helpful resources on what to do if you encounter a wild animal that you believe may be sick, injured or orphaned. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is also a great source of information. But if you don’t have time for that, here’s a quick summary: Animals don’t need our help as often as we may think they do. When assistance is needed, there are trained and licensed people to provide that help. 

Looking out for our native wildlife neighbors is an oft overlooked aspect of conservation. But it’s so important to maintain our local biodiversity. Even species that currently exist in large numbers and wide ranges live in the same ever-changing world that we do and require active protection to maintain that status. The next time you visit the Zoo, chat with one of our team members about ways to support native wildlife. Better yet, visit us on Saturday or Sunday, February 17 or 18, and become a citizen scientist during the Great Backyard Bird Count! I hope to see you there (or rather, here)! 

Sarah Hamilton
Interpretive Engagement Specialist

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl