During the summer of 2013 I interned at the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary. There I learned much about the Zoo’s history, goals, daily routines, and all the efforts involved in running a non-profit zoo.
The Austin Zoo was originally known as the Good Ranch and catered to domestic farm animals in need, however as demand grew, so did the Ranch, and in 1994 it became the Austin Zoo. The zoo is now home to a variety of unwanted or rescued domestic, as well as exotic animals and continues to provide for them through rescue, rehabilitation, and education.
The zoo sits on 80 acres of hill country land in the city of Bee Caves, near Austin, Texas. However, only 20 acres has been developed and used to house the animals. It is a non-profit organization that relies solely on private donations, sponsorships, grants and gate admissions. The zoo is also able to function through the hard work of the owner, volunteer coordinator, the public relations staff, as well as the many zookeepers and maintenance staff. It is not your typical “big-city” zoo with gimmicky attractions and pounds of cotton candy, but instead a colorful, quirky and a lot less stressful place to visit.
Alongside rescuing and rehabilitating animals, the zoo is dedicated to educating the public about the issues regarding exotic pets. Throughout the grounds there are informational signs about the effects of owning an exotic pet, compelling visitors to think twice about owning a cute little monkey or a big colorful bird.
The exotic pet trade is a multibillion-dollar business and is one of the largest sources contributing to criminal earnings. Therefore it is paramount for people to be aware of the implications of owning an exotic pet. Firstly, the average pet owner can rarely provide for the care it takes to look after the wellbeing of an exotic animal, which often leads to the animal’s death or abandonment. According to Africa’s Environmental Crime Investigation unit, it is estimated that 90 percent of exported reptiles die within a year of being a pet. The exotic pet trade is a cruel and inhumane business. It leads to countless psychological traumas and unnecessary deaths because many of the animals are taken from their natural habitat, torn away from their mothers at a very young age, and are then placed in deplorable conditions for further illegal smuggling and trading. Therefore the Austin Zoo’s mission is not only to care for these animals whose lives have been far from easy, but also to inform and educate the public about the various animals and how they should be properly regarded and treated.
In order to allocate the daily tasks amongst the zookeepers, the zoo is divided into seven different areas. Area 1 pertains to the primates. Caring for animals in this area begins with making the ‘monkey bucket’ each morning. This consists of chopping up lots of bananas, oranges, apples, squash and sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes have to be cooked because they contain an enzyme inhibitor that blocks the digestive proteins, making it hard for some animals to digest. As well as preparing food, zookeepers have to clean out their assigned enclosures. For example, the inside of Primate Palace is swept and scrubbed every day and their blankets are swapped out for new ones. Once the cleaning is done, the food bowls are prepared. They usually consist of the same fruits and veggies but vary on amount. For example the Capuchins each get one cup of New World biscuits, ½ teaspoon vegetable oil, 5 beans, a cup of various fruits, and ¾ cup of various veggies. As for the Squirrel monkeys each get ¼ cup New World biscuits, ¼ teaspoon vegetable oil, ¼ cup of fruit, ¼ of vegetables and 1/8 cup of seed mix.
The zookeepers follow dietary instructions but are also able to diverge a little, depending on the food available, sometimes more food can be added or more needs to be subtracted. It is important to slightly vary their diet so that they are not bored and lose their appetite. For example, the Callitrichids can be treated to small amounts of marshmallows, gummy candies, cake, cookies and animal crackers. For enrichment, zookeepers may rearrange their enclosure, swap out their toys, and move around their sleeping boxes, in order to keep the animals interested and promote play behavior.
Area 2, which entails the big cats and bears, demands the work of two zookeepers. Similar to Area 1, the enclosures are cleaned out and food is prepared. The big cats feast on various meats, such as beef steaks, ground turkey, and chicken hearts that were donated from the Food Bank. After the meat is weight out and separated for each individual, one of the zookeepers also adds a scoop of supplement powder called Taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that cats get from eating red meat, but if they lack the sufficient amount then health problems can arise, such as blindness and immune system dysfunction. For mental enrichment the same principle is used, the keepers change the layout of their enclosures, and give them new toys to play with. The staff continuously thinks about the wellbeing of the animals. Since the Zoo is non-profit and mainly relies on donations, the zookeepers have to be creative in coming up with new and different ways to keep the animals entertained. For example, one of the zookeepers is skilled at paper mache and just recently made a figure in the form of a kangaroo for one of the lions, and another in the form of a bee hive with honey inside of it for Chloe, the North American Black Bear, to play with.
Area 3 contains all the hoof stock. This area is a little different from the rest in that there is a lot less work in the food preparation because it consists mainly of hay and grain. However it requires more work involved in cleaning out the yards. Throughout the week the responsibility for raking the yards and cleaning the troughs rotates, and the zookeepers have to check houses daily for trash and wasps and also to hose down the barn walk way and clean out grain feeders as needed. The enrichment for the wellbeing of the animals in Area 3 is a little different for the animals living there. For example, the layout of the yards for the goats and pigs gets changed up routinely, yet for certain animals, like Dewey the donkey and two ponies named Amber and Toucan, they enjoy being taken on long walks where they help tame the grass on the zoo grounds.
Area 4 belongs to the reptiles and includes the various tortoises and the reptile house. The individual working in this area is responsible for preparing the tortoise bucket which consists of chopping various vegetables, such as turnips, zucchinis, squashes, carrots, and cacti (from which the spines have been removed) into about one inch pieces until the 5 gallon bucket is full. The zookeeper has to clean the tortoise barn out every day, which houses three Galapagos tortoises and five African spurred tortoises. This is done by raking up their feces inside and outside the barn, scrubbing the floors with a little bleach and then rinsing it all away. Even though the Galapagos tortoises come from the Galapagos Islands the climate is not hot and humid like you might expect coming from an island, but instead the daytime temperatures in the lowlands usually reach around 30°C (85°F). So in order to keep them as cool as possible through the harsh Texas summer they give them daily showers by spraying them with a hose. They love it! They stand with their necks up high trying to take in as much cool water as possible. They also have two wallows in their yard, and inside their barn they have misters.
Next is taking care of the reptiles in the reptile house, also known as the Discovery Center. Here the zookeepers replenish water, change out substrate, check and make sure all tanks are working properly in keeping the various species warm/cool, as well as feeding them mice, guinea pigs, or crickets depending on the feeding day, for example every Saturday is when they feed the snakes their weekly mice. For the Discovery Center enrichment, the zookeepers change up their enclosures as well, by switching out rocks, moving around branches, adding various fake plants, trying to keep things new and interesting. The snakes are also held for about ten to fifteen minutes each in order to provide them with exercise.
Area 5 houses the wolf hybrids, the kangaroo, the kinkajous, two binturongs and a porcupine. This involves making the various plates, weighting out the meat for the wolf hybrids, and chopping up fruits and veggies for the others. The binturongs’, also known as the Asian bear cat, and kinkajous’ diet consist mainly of fruits and vegetables but meat can be added since they are known to eat insects and small rodents in the wild when the occasion presents itself. The keepers also clean out their enclosures daily by raking up their feces, cleaning their housing and continuing with enrichment ideas of adding different items to their enclosures or food bowls.
Area 6 includes all the birds. The zookeeper in charge of this area is responsible for making the bird bucket, chopping up various fruits and veggies into small pieces. They also clean the enclosures by raking up all the food that fell on the ground or that got stuck in between the bars of the cage. The ideas for enrichment follow the same guidelines as all the rest, switching their enclosures around or giving them new objects to investigate. For example, zookeepers will often use old carton boxes to hide different seeds in for the birds to get to.
Area 7 contains a mixture of animals, dealing mainly with the domestic ones, such as the coatis, a ferret, a goose, a rat, Bandit the three legged wolf hybrid and her friend Joy, the Timber wolf. This area, like all the others, calls for daily cleaning of the enclosures, feeding the animals, checking and making sure they are healthy, and trying to vary their daily activities through various enrichment ideas.
In addition to the efforts of the zoo staff, donations are a huge help, such as the Capital Area Food Bank. Patti Clark, the owner, also uses her connections among the community in order obtain various items. For example, a vodka company from Dripping Springs uses only the zest of their oranges, and then donates the rest to the Austin Zoo. At times, Panera Bread will donate bags of their unused items, or a catering company called Gourmet Gals and Guys will donate their left over food items. If the zoo is in need of more, those required items are added to the grocery list and later purchased.
Along with the help of various companies, volunteers are an incredible help to the zookeepers and the animals. For example, a group of boy scouts constructed a platform for both Bandit and Joy to enjoy. Another group placed benches throughout the zoo for visitors to rest. Other volunteers may help in raking yards, replacing substrate, and any other projects around the zoo.
This internship at the Austin Zoo, although at times was made up of washing dishes and doing laundry, has given me the opportunity to experience things that I never have before, such as playing with coatis, petting a Timber wolf and showering Galapagos tortoises. By helping the zookeepers with their daily tasks of making food and cleaning enclosures I have learned a lot about the various species of animals and their many diets. I have also become more aware of the damaging effects involved in the exotic pet trade and its catastrophic influence on the wellbeing of countless animals. I am extremely grateful that there are places, like the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, committed to helping these animals obtain their basic necessities in order for them to live a safe and comfortable life. And mostly for all the compassionate people, in the zoo and outside, who spend their time and effort in remedying what others have wrongfully done.