animal ambassadors


Animal Express Delivers Smiles

Geronimo the armadillo is one of the animal ambassador used in the Animal Express program.

People love to meet and touch an armadillo during an Animal Express program.

One of the most gratifying programs in the Safari Park’s Education Department is Animal Express. Funded entirely by donations, Animal Express is an outreach program that brings animals to people who are unable to visit the Safari Park, allowing them to enjoy the many health benefits associated with interactions with animals, such as the reduction of blood pressure and stress levels. Every Animal Express visit is led by two experienced staff members who bring three or four of our animal ambassadors. Staff members share the animals in a fun, interactive fashion and often bring animals trained to allow touches from members of the audience.

When Animal Express was originally developed in 1999, the primary clients were adult groups at senior care and convalescent centers, but now the audience has expanded to include facilities that care for children, teen centers, rehabilitation clinics, and shelters for victims of domestic violence.  Any facility with residents in need of smiles is the perfect location for an Animal Express visit!

Dusty the chinchilla

What fun to feel how soft a chinchilla really is!

So far in 2013, the Animal Express program has visited nine facilities, with five more scheduled for the remainder of January. Here are some special moments from their visits:

* We were greeted by a sign announcing our visit at a recent visit to a facility specializing in Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the sign, residents of the facility had written the animals they hoped we would bring with us to visit them.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t grant the wishes of those who wanted us to bring a lion, but the residents were delighted to meet Dusty the chinchilla, Geronimo the armadillo, Cliff the tawny frogmouth, and Tombi the hedgehog! One facility staff member commented, “One of the residents, who hasn’t responded in a couple of weeks, made sounds of pleasure after touching [the animals].”  The facility also has a blind resident who was delighted by the sensory experience.  And, remarkably, the site staff also reported that “The residents, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, remembered most of the animals [from previous Animal Express visits] because of their uniqueness.”  It is just this type of response that makes the Animal Express program so special and rewarding.

Zeke the kookaburra can usually be persuaded to make his signature call!

Zeke the kookaburra can usually be persuaded to make his signature call!

* A memory care facility was the site of another Animal Express visit. There were approximately 30 residents and staff in the audience. The animal ambassador line up included Aruk the sugarglider, Stanley the tenrec, Tattoo the armadillo, and Ashley the chinchilla. On the feedback form that the facility’s staff completed, they wrote, “[Our residents’] reactions were so positive: joy & happiness!  Several clients that don’t normally attend activities came and interacted with the animals; it made their day!”

* Animal Express visited a facility caring for abused/neglected children on Saturday, January 12, so that the visit would not conflict with the children’s school day. The children were quiet and reserved when Animal Express arrived; by the end of the program, the children were jovial and engaged. The animals truly brought out their enthusiasm and reminded them of the joy of childhood!

* At a small residence for at-risk teen girls with traumatic backgrounds, animal ambassadors Euphrates the leopard gecko, Peanut the armadillo, Kipanga the pygmy falcon, and Ilizi the African bullfrog visited and brought smiles to the faces of their audience. The girls showed very high interest in the animals and enjoyed the program’s ability to allow them to relax and be light-hearted.

We are so grateful to all who donate funds for this extremely worthwhile program.  Not only is it an incredible gift to every resident at the facilities we visit, but a gift to our Education staff to take part in such a rewarding program and a gift to our animal ambassadors to enjoy the enrichment of participating in outreach. Animal Express truly allows us to put the mission of San Diego Zoo Global into action and connect people to wildlife.

Dana Arbogast is an education supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, <a href=”http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/2010/06/07/junior-night-sleepover/”>Junior Night Sleepover</a>.


Nairobi Station: All New!

Touch and brush friendly African goats in our remodeled Petting Kraal.

Have you been to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park recently? If not, you’re missing out! We have an amazing new interactive space, Nairobi Station, which has multitudes of fun things for you to discover. I know, because I work in this new area!

Formerly known as the Animal Care Center, Nairobi Station still provides top-notch animal care, but on a wider scale. The babies needing to be hand raised are still living here, but they are sharing the space with some of our famous animal ambassadors. There is always an educator, such as myself, available to tell you about our special animals. Throughout the day, stop by for an introduction. You never know which animal might be out to meet you!

Welcome to the Nairobi Station at the Safari Park!

These animals are pros at showing off what is awesome about their species, and they get a little help from us to get their stories across. Tina the tenrec, Gibnut the paca, and Irazu the black milksnake are just a few of the animals waiting to meet you in Nairobi Station.
Someone else who is excited to show off his new digs is Robert the Zebra! If you have never had a conversation with a talking zebra, I gotta tell ya, you need to meet Robert. Thanks to attending talking animal school, he is prepared to give you directions around the Safari Park and even some fun facts… straight from the horse’s… ahem, zebra’s, mouth.

After hanging out with Robert and meeting our animal ambassadors, head down Nairobi Walk and check out Nairobi Nursery’s animal exercise yard. Bounding antelope and gazelle babies are waiting to impress you with their newfound skills! Want some hands-on time with some of our furry friends? Just beyond the nursery yard is the newly remodeled Petting Kraal, where you can pet and brush three different species of African goats. Want to know your favorite goat’s name? A keeper will be happy to tell you “who is who.”

Have some fun in the new Village Playground!

Aside from our animal interaction areas, Nairobi Station also has spaces where kids and adults alike can get their wiggles out, show their athletic prowess, and just plain have fun. Just past our Petting Kraal is a brand-new play area where you can acquire some new skills, like learning to balance a jug filled with water on your head. Water elements, drums, and a brand-new ropes course round out our new area. Come check us out…bring the fam!

Alex Higley is an educator at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Duke the Dog Wears Many Hats

Duke greets guests at the Zoo.

The “Camp Critters” show at the San Diego Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl made its debut on June 25, 2011. Since its inception, the cast of Camp Critters, just as in any production, includes many animals that play different parts in the show. The largest dog in the Zoo is Duke, our white Anatolian shepherd. He plays the role of Brutus, the right hand of the character we call Camp Counselor Margi Monahan. Duke weighs in at approximately 140 pounds (64 kilograms) and is an remarkably happy and  gentle giant.

Duke wears many hats: he is first and foremost the companion animal to Taraji, our cheetah. Both animals are almost three years old and were introduced to each other nearly two and a half years ago. Taraji and Duke play, chase, wrestle, and make public appearances together as a team. The unique relationship between this dog-and-cat duo offers trainers the opportunity to discuss the training of the animals and how Anatolian shepherds contribute to a unique cheetah conservation program in Africa. Due to their large size and protective nature, Anatolian shepherds have been trained to protect herds of livestock in Africa where cheetahs can be found. When a cheetah sees a dog the size of Duke protecting cattle or goats, the cheetah moves on to easier prey, which benefits both farmers and cheetahs.

Duke’s other role at the Zoo is as one of our most beloved animal ambassadors. He routinely makes rounds to staff offices throughout the Zoo, attends meetings, and generally puts smiles on faces, young and old, wherever he goes. Like any dog, Duke has his routine of playing with his cheetah friend, walking about the Zoo, and playing the part of Brutus in the “Camp Critters” show.

Duke has some company during his "spa" treatment.

Recently, Duke developed a small area on his foot that he was over-grooming. Over-grooming and the creation of what is often referred to as “hot-spot dermatitis” is a common occurrence in domestic canine companions and household members. He became very focused on this area, so to protect his foot until further diagnostic tests could be performed and an appropriate treatment plan developed, veterinarians fitted Duke with a bandage over the affected area. One of the methods for treating Duke is to keep his routine full of enriching activities such as walks, meeting guests, and shows, so that he focuses less on his bandage and more on his activity. Duke is not in distress, and keeping him active is actually of significant benefit to his well-being.

Duke remains busy learning new things every day and recently developed a friendship with our rescued female dog, Kona. Both dogs are close in age and energy; however, Kona weighs a hundred pounds less than Duke and is a hundred times more agile! Duke’s gangly gait and playful demeanor, along with Kona’s speed and agility, cause quite the play-day ruckus behind Wegeforth Bowl’s “Camp Critters” set. From staff to guests to his cheetah and dog friends, Duke is a doted-on dog!

Kristi Lee Dovich is an animal training manager at the San Diego Zoo.


Scaly Animal Ambassadors

It is easy to see how Floyd and his kind were named blue-tongued skinks!

Part of being an educator at the San Diego Zoo is connecting wildlife to our guests by using animals as a way to trigger interest and concern, especially for children who just love to get close to an animal they’ve never seen before. As a part of the Zoo’s Education Department, I take care of some pretty neat animals that are ambassadors for their species.

Our group of reptile ambassadors is seen by thousands of children a year through school assemblies, animal presentations, sleepovers, and summer, spring, and winter camps. Probably our most famous ambassador is Floyd, the blue-tongued skink. He has been around for quite some time and has the most amazing temperament—always a gentleman and very tolerant of small hands petting him. And personally, he is my favorite to take care of!

Another favorite is Monty, a ball python. Very eager to be handled and always popular with children, one of the best things about Monty is he helps take away the image many people have that snakes are slimy creatures when in fact snakes are smooth and have a special feel all their own. All of the snakes I take care of have a different feel to their scales.

An educator shows off the beautiful colors on Tex.

Tex, a Mexican milk snake, is getting older and doesn’t come out as much; when he does, children love to see his beautiful red, yellow, and black bands. A new addition to our ambassador group has been an albino Nelson’s milk snake. He is more of a pinkish color and even has red eyes. His name is Peppermint Pat and is still getting used to coming out for children, as he is very friendly but also very squirmy!

We have two Australian womas named Mickie and Nooroo (see post Wonderful Womas). One of my favorite things about them is their coloring. At first they look pale green, but as you bring them into the light they seem to have a metallic sheen with a greenish, purple haze. These snakes have a very small head for their body, but they can eat full-grown mice.

A Zoo camper meets Manja, a Madagascar ground boa.

Manja is our biggest snake; this Madagascar ground boa constrictor is a handful for two adults. When we first take him out of his enclosure, he is still waking up and getting used to being outside. But soon he is wiggling everywhere and really makes us work for a smooth animal presentation.

Last but not least is Spot, a spotted salamander who is our only amphibian ambassador. He’s a slimy guy that makes kids, and even adults, giggle when they touch him. He is dark gray with yellow spots and has a good appetite for earthworms and crickets!

These animals are fantastic ambassadors for our zoo. The best part of my job is when I can make a child fall in love with an animal he or she may have never heard of before but now cares deeply about and never wants to hear of them on the Endangered Species List. So keep an eye out for our amazing group of reptiles that work overtime for the San Diego Zoo.

Anastasia Horning is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Redecorates.


Cheetah Cub at 15 Weeks

A cub from a previous litter at about the same age as Kiburi

Kiburi, the newest cheetah at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is 15 weeks old now (see previous post, Cheetah Cub Pounces).  He is growing into such a beautiful, handsome cheetah and weighs about 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms). His main diet consists of carnivore diet, a ground-meat product prepared especially for carnivores in managed care. Kiburi still gets his meat four times a day. He’s also been getting beef bones twice a week.

Our little cheetah has been receiving daily visits from our behavior team to start getting him ready to become an ambassador for cheetah conservation. Twice a day, Kiburi’s trainers come to the Park’s Animal Care Center, where Kiburi is staying, to bond with him. This is all part of his training to become one of the Park’s animal ambassadors. He has even been introduced to Hopper, one of the canine companions used by the Behavior Department.

Kiburi has been adjusting very well to all of these new exposures; he’s even been going outside to exercise for about an hour a day in an enclosed area. Through generous donations, we have plans to build a new off-exhibit cheetah enclosure for Kiburi where many of our other animal ambassadors reside. For now, Kiburi’s fans can continue to visit him and watch him grow at the Animal Care Center.

Sandy Craig is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Playtime for Wolves, Cheetahs, Dogs

Arctic wolf brothers play in the new AAA.

For the first time in the San Diego Zoo’s history, we are able to offer our visitors a chance to view a variety of animal ambassadors on exhibit. These ambassadors, trained to travel to off-site events and special animal presentations, normally live in off-exhibit areas, but through a generous donation we were able to enclose a large area in Urban Jungle that houses cheetahs, domestic dogs, Arctic and gray wolves, and a New Guinea singing dog—not all at the same time, mind you, but most of the time you will see unusual dynamic pairs of animals playing together.

For example, you might find a cheetah paired with a domestic dog, or a large Arctic wolf paired with a very small New Guinea singing dog (sometimes there is no accounting for taste!), or the gray wolf running with his best friend, a golden retriever. There are currently four different dog and cheetah pairs that share the new Animal Ambassador Area (AAA):

– Karroo, female cheetah, and Sven Olof, male blond golden retriever (see Mr. Sven Olaf and Earth Day)
– Kubali, female cheetah, and Bear, male chow mix
– Bakari, male cheetah, and Miley, female husky mix (see Cheetah and Dog Pals)
– Taraji, youngest female cheetah (see Lots of Spots), and Duke, enormous male Anatolian shepherd

Each dog and cheetah pairing enjoys the enclosure a little differently. Miley loves the water and has so much fun playing in the AAA’s pool that one day Bakari decided to join her. Well, he had the shock of a lifetime when he launched into it from an overhanging rock—he had never been in water before and clearly did not share the same joyous feelings about it that Miley had! Nowadays, Bakari hisses at the pond when Miley gets going with all the splashing and bouncing. Duke chooses just to wade in the water for a cool-down period; after all, he spends most of his day chasing the little mighty juvenile cheetah cub, and so far, Taraji lets Duke have his quiet time in the pond alone. One day soon, though, I’m sure Taraji will venture into the pool as well.

Ah, a nice pile of ice!

The beauty of this Animal Ambassador Area is the fact that you never know which animals you’ll meet inside or what you will find them doing! There are three other sets of animals you might see in the new AAA:

– Kenai (see Mr. Ice Man) and Keeli, Arctic wolf brothers (see Wolf Brothers Sniff a Surprise)
– Keeli and Montana, female New Guinea singing dog
– Akela, male timber wolf, and Nala, female golden retriever

Guests are always surprised when the animal stars arrive at the AAA—we use all forms of transportation to get them here. Sometimes the animals are walked over from Wegeforth Bowl, sometimes they arrive in an air-conditioned van, sometimes they travel in a custom cart built for sea lions, sometimes they come in a shaded golf cart, and sometimes they hitch a ride on a horse-drawn buggy. The animal ambassadors are then walked into the AAA on leash and, once inside, the collar and leash come off and the fun begins! Guests may have an opportunity to speak with one of the trainers personally about the animals in the exhibit as they are coming or going; it’s a great way to learn about each individual animal and their partner. This magical encounter begins anytime after 9 a.m. daily, so please make it one of your next stops when you visit the San Diego Zoo!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Flamingos: Caribbean Kindergarten.