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Australian keeper

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Australian Keeper Exchange

A young bongo

G’day from Sydney, Australia! Normally I am the rhino, camel, and warty pig keeper at the San Diego Zoo. For the next six months I am the giraffe, bongo, zebra, tapir, and pygmy hippo keeper at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. My blog posts were usually about weighing rhinos or what was going on in the meerkat mob a few years ago. This one is about my first six weeks here in Sydney.

I arrived at the end of October; it was all a bit overwhelming since I haven’t been a “new” keeper in almost seven years. Learning the routine at another zoo can be difficult the first week or so. I am on the ungulate team here, and the keepers have been great. We work more as a team, whereas we work more independently at the San Diego Zoo.

Taronga Zoo is set right on the north side of Sydney Harbor. Every morning when I walk in, I see the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge right over the giraffes’ heads; I would have to say the giraffes have one of the best views in Sydney! The collection of animals here is similar to San Diego’s, with a wide variety from all over the world. The most exciting thing for me as a keeper is the opportunity to see animals in a zoo that are rarely are exhibited in American zoos. I am scheduled to meet the platypus. For anyone who has seen these animals on TV, this is very exciting! They are only exhibited in Australia, and the chance to get to meet this monotreme (egg-laying mammal) will go down as one of the best parts of my exchange.

The wildlife around the zoo is also very interesting. Animals that we only have in zoos in America are flying and running around this zoo daily: rainbow lorikeets, sulfur-crested cockatoos, laughing kookaburras, and water dragons. The most exciting for me so far were the flying foxes I saw when I went to dinner last night. Flying foxes are the larger members of the bat family (Megachiroptera). I studied the smaller ones in Costa Rica in college, so I was thrilled to see these huge flying mammals in person here.

I have been put in charge of getting weights on the bongo antelope to see if the younger female is pregnant. She has been trained for weigh-ins, and we got her first weight on Wednesday. Here’s hoping her weight keeps increasing! I am lucky enough to be here for six months and look forward to updating everyone on more animals and experiences I encounter. Happy new year from Down Under!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Dirt on Rhinos.

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Hopping along the Exchange

Adam Ruble, a keeper with the San Diego Zoo, is currently on a keeper exchange with the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. Read his previous blog,
Keeping Down Under.

With my keeper exchange two-thirds complete, I must confess this experience has been nothing short of amazing. Since my first blog I have been working with kangaroos, emus, and a few bird aviaries.

Life has certainly not been quiet during the past month in the kangaroo yard. One male kangaroo had a grass seed stuck in his eye and was “knocked-out” under anesthesia to remove it and treat the eye. This is also a very lucky time to be working with the roos since there are currently two nine-month-old joeys hopping around.

Generally a kangaroo joey will spend its first nine months in the mother’s pouch. Every day the joey gains more confidence exploring until a final day in which it will not go back in the pouch at all. It will continue to hang around mom and nurse by sticking its head in the pouch, but it will not actually go back in the pouch completely. This event is noted in the records as “permanently out of pouch” or “pop.” Both joeys have popped this month and to watch this transition was fantastic. The joeys at this stage are quite large and still trying to fit in the pouch made for a questionable sight for some visitors. With legs and arms sticking out every which way and a heavy sagging pouch dragging on the ground as mom walked about, it mostly mirrored the experience of overstaying your welcome after college at your parent’s house. The veterinary staff processed the joeys in order to ensure healthy roos. This includes giving them a microchip (like they do in dogs/cats), de-worm meds, identification, and a physical exam.

Other highlights of the Australian Bush team include watching Jon, our supervisor, grab up a 25-kilogram (about 55-pound) southern hairy-nosed wombat for an injection. In order to pick one up you must, in one scooping motion, pick them up from under their tiny front legs and pull them up in the air to one’s chest so they are facing vertical and outward. Let’s just say that to pick up over 50 pounds in one swift motion does wonders for one’s back! I also got to witness two Australian Bush keepers, Ditar and Chandi, doing some “legendary” tail grabbing with a tree kangaroo for a procedure.

I must also admit that the mammals are not the only exciting animals in town. The pelican feed is a wild feat that keeper Karen demonstrated for me. You would think tossing some fish to a few pelicans would be easy, but with several other local “freeloader” birds that have all learned the flight pattern of the fish and have learned to intercept them mid-air, it is a whole new ball game. This is where Karen out-played them all with psych-outs, decoys, Hail Mary’s, and some fastball pitches to ensure the fish made it to their proper home. Deb, another keeper with the team, has taken in an abandoned baby ring-tail possum and is raising her to become an encounter animal for the zoo. With feedings around the clock, it is a tough job, but the results in my professional opinion are…very cute. That’s me with little Rosey.

Along with the animal work, the adjustment to Australian life has been a smooth process. The team has been patient and has done its best to keep me up to speed with any words I don’t know. A few examples: Smoke-O means a break; pram means stroller; buggy means cart (golf cart); crook means sick; and punter means guest. Of course I didn’t have this list and I had to learn the hard way, but now I at least know if I hit a pram with the buggy I will have to deal with some angry punters and make sure to call in crook the next day.

Working in the zoo business is very dynamic, and even on the other side of the world one thing doesn’t change, and this is the motivation that drives people to work in the zoo business. Whatever job someone is doing, odds are there are more directing motivations than money. There is a passion for the animals and a passion for our mission. Don’t get me wrong, as a keeper there are plenty of arguments, like who can rake better or hose faster, and of course every department’s struggle for a larger budget; but all that aside, it is still a wonderful place to work every day. The Melbourne Zoo staff members realize this and are able to laugh at those workplace dramas together. On Halloween, the zoo holds an annual review, which is a sit-down dinner with entertainment provided by different departments. Now in Australia, Halloween is not celebrated as big as it is in the States, but that doesn’t stop everyone from showing up in full costume. Participating departments would show a video, skit, slide show, dance–any creative parody to laugh together at the nuisances of the zoo business. This not only makes light of the work place, but allows everyone to share the attitude that we are all motivated by good intentions in the end. It is a pleasure to be surrounded by that every day, and I am excited to get back to San Diego where that attitude is equally shared, and where my counter-clockwise swivel pattern rake motion reigns above all…Until next time.