Thursday, April 7
Before I began my internship with the Program Animals Department in January, I didn’t know that this department existed. Like most people, when I thought of the Zoo, the first things that came to mind were the larger animals such as the gorillas, giraffes, elephants and my favourite, the red panda. And like most people, the first time I visited the Zoo and stumbled across the Wieland Wildlife Home, I turned the other way because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at. Much to my surprise, when I first walked past the “Zoo Staff Only” signs, I was greeted by over 70 individual animals representing 25 different species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. From domestic ferrets and hissing cockroaches to Quinn the prehensile-tailed porcupine and Chakana our 7-foot long red-tailed boa, this seemingly quiet and quaint building has a wealth of unique animals just waiting to greet the public.
This small but mighty department plays an important role in Zoo Atlanta’s mission of providing an educational and engaging experience to its thousands of daily visitors. Our animal ambassadors are part of the amazing programs run by the Education Department, but they are the real stars of the show at Amy’s Tree Theater. One of the most satisfying parts about working in the Program Animals Department (aside from taking care of so many wonderful animals!) is seeing guests get as excited about these animals and their biology as I am! The animals at Wieland have some exceptional adaptations designed to help them survive in their environment. For instance, our ball pythons Kipira and Nyoka have heat-sensing pits along their mouths that can detect temperature changes of just 3/1000th of a degree. That, coupled with their over 150 backward-facing teeth, would make any mouse an easy catch.
Another pleasure of working with so many different animals is the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained from my short time here. I have encountered a number of animals that I had never heard of before, such as Voldemort our sheltopusik (more commonly known as a legless lizard), and Tsara and Tiako our Madagascar lesser hedgehog tenrecs. One of my favourite things to do when I have spare time is hang out with Tsara. She exhibits a unique behaviour called self-anointing, where she will actually take smells that she likes from her environment and brush them into her spines, creating her very own perfume!
However, when working with so many different animals, you’re bound to stumble across a few who have learned exactly how to push your buttons. All of our animals are trained using positive reinforcement, meaning that when we ask them to do something such as kennel or go to a target, whether or not they do so is entirely their choice. Our chinchillas, who are trained to enter a kennel on their own with the promise that they will receive some form of reward once inside, have learned the fine art of messing with their handlers. They outsmart us time and time again, pulling newspaper to tip their treats into their enclosure or standing just on the edge of the kennel before hopping back home. I’ve come to believe that they get more of a reward from the defeated sighs of their handlers than they ever would from the sunflower seeds.
I’ve learned that Wieland Wildlife Home is much more than meets the eye, so next time you stop by Zoo Atlanta, make sure to come and visit. From the boardwalk you can see Aria and Diesel the European rabbits, Fina our gopher tortoise, Alex the box turtle, and if you can find him buried in the mulch, Littlefoot the red-footed tortoise. And make sure to keep an eye out when walking around the Zoo, because you might just come face-to-face with one of our other critters as they enjoy the sights that Zoo Atlanta has to offer.
Seasonal Keeper, Program Animals