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Zoo Hospital: Picky Beaver

Welcome, Justine Beaver!

“Hey, Hospital Keepers! How can we get this beaver to eat her wood?”

Feeding animals is as much of an art as a science. We keepers enjoy getting to know the newest animals to the collection while they spend their designated quarantine time with us at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Some of these animals have been picky eaters, and some of these picky eaters have really taught us a lesson or two about food presentation. This past summer, a Canadian beaver came into quarantine. This cute, little, brown-haired female’s name was Justine. Get it? Justin Beiber. Justine Beaver. Ah, Zoo humor. Gotta love it!

Anyway, we’d always giggle about her creative name, but what didn’t make us happy was her appetite. Justine had settled in to her new digs for the mandatory 30-day quarantine period pretty quickly, swimming in her big pool, making a nest out of the wood and fresh browse we provided, and eating most of her pellets and produce. But we did notice that she wasn’t gnawing on her logs like she should.

You see, the majority of a beaver’s natural diet is wood. Our Horticulture Department worked very closely with our nutritionists to provide the appropriate species of wood and browse. We keepers would pick up the delivery, hose it off, and bring it to Miss Beaver, placing it ever-so-nicely in a pile in her room. The next morning we could see that even though she had disturbed the woodpile, she was just picking out the leafier sections to use as bedding and not actually eating much of the wood itself.

Justine goes for a swim.

After some brainstorming, one of our amazing keepers came up with the idea to stand the pieces of wood on end, straight up like a tree. Metal loops were secured to the wall of her enclosure, and the pile was placed vertically. The numerous pieces made a miniature forest, and we all agreed that it looked pretty impressive. Well, it seems that Justine was impressed, too, because the next morning all the wood had been gnawed through. She had cut the forest down overnight, and each log had the characteristic hourglass cutouts we’ve all seen on TV. Success! Throughout the rest of her stay with us, Justine Beaver ate very well, leaving the hospital a tad heavier than when she arrived, which is fine with us.

Justine Beaver is now at the Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl animal show area. She’s been spending the past few months developing the much-needed trust in her trainers in order to go out on stage to be part of the Camp Critters show. So far, Justine goes into her crate without fail, has a new enclosure complete with a natural rock pool and sunning deck, and has been exploring the various other areas within Wegeforth Bowl. The trick to her success seems to be to let her sleep in late and go for a swim before each training session. Then, trainers allow Justine to explore wherever they’ve taken her, and when she’s done, she rides in her crate back home to her brand-new digs! She’s captured everyone’s heart. A date for her show debut is not yet set, as it will be completely up to Justine! She’ll let everyone know when she’s ready and once we know, YOU will know!

Kirstin Clapham is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: What Do You Weigh?