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Melbourne Zoo

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Tales from Down Under

Lindsey has her hands full with a koala!

G’Day! I’m Lindsey. At the San Diego Zoo, you’ll usually find me working around the Polar Bear Plunge and Elephant Odyssey areas, but for a little over a month I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Australia Bush team at the Melbourne Zoo in Melbourne, Australia. This story may sound familiar, as two keepers before me have also had this incredible opportunity. In 2008, Adam Ruble re-ignited the keeper exchange program at the San Diego Zoo, and it is due to his spirit and dedication, and the wonderful support of Zoo management, that I am able to report to you now from Australia.

When folks think of Australia, a place of kangaroos and koalas first comes to mind. As you can imagine, I was very excited to delve into the world of marsupials, having spent the last five years working with carnivores and ungulates. You can’t get much more Australian than the Aus Bush team! I now spend my days looking after Kangaroo Island kangaroos, red kangaroos, emus, parma wallabies, quokkas (another type of small wallaby), and a few species of birds. Very soon I’ll be introduced to rounds including the koalas, echidnas, tree kangaroos, platypuses, and wombats. The excitement is almost too much to contain!

In case you were wondering what a bandicoot looks like...

There is, however, one little known Australian critter that has caught my attention: the eastern barred bandicoot, or EBB. Now, I didn’t even know what a bandicoot was before I arrived here, and I was assured that I may not even see one during my time here, since they spend the majority of daylight hours tucked into nests. Bandicoots are a small marsupial weighing around 800 grams (28 ounces) at adult size. Their lifespan is two to three years in the wild, where their biggest threats are red foxes, habitat loss, and drought. The Victorian population of EBBs is considered extinct in the wild and only survives in three reintroduced populations. The Melbourne Zoo has been a part of a collaborative effort for captive breeding and release of EBBs for over 20 years.

A bandicoot receives a nail trim.

The Melbourne Zoo currently houses 29 EBBs that are being prepared as the next breeding group. Since they are nocturnal, the team was right: you really don’t see them up and about during the day, but once a month they are caught up, weighed, and assessed. It just so happened that one of these monthly weigh-ups occurred during my second week of work, and it was like watching a well-oiled machine as the Aus Bush team moved through the pens from one animal to the next with ease. The process begins by carefully moving so as not to crush the animal under foot as you search for its nest site and follows with selective placement of the net before coaxing the critter out of its cozy burrow. Once caught up, they’re transferred to the scale and then back to the keeper for a health assessment and nail trimming.

Strangely enough, this process has become one of the highlights of my time here and has spurred an interest in an animal that a few weeks ago I didn’t even know existed. Just last week I even got to sit in on a meeting of the EBB Recovery Team and learn more about the challenges of the reintroduction process and participate in discussions of how improvements can be made. I’m also hoping that I’ll be able to visit one or more of the release sites while I’m here.

All in all, very exciting times here in Australia, so thanks again to everyone who’s made this adventure possible!

Lindsey King is a San Diego Zoo keeper currently on a keeper exchange with the Melbourne Zoo.

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Keeper Exchange: Farewell

G’DAY once again from Australia. As my time here at the Melbourne Zoo is coming to a close, I would like to reflect back on the highlights of my keeper exchange journey (see previous post, G’Day from Australia). One of my main highlights was working with the primates as opposed to the kudu, zebra, and other hoofed stock that I look after in the States. Now, I know that ungulates are intelligent in their own way, but after watching gorillas taking arm injections without fuss is mind-blowing! I will also miss getting enthusiastically greeted by lemurs every morning.

The other highlight of my journey would have to be the people that I met. Sure, these people might use different expressions (or words that might not even exist!), but Australians have to be the friendliest group of people I have ever met.

And finally, I would like to thank upper management from both zoos for making this happen. This exchange has been a great experience for me and hopefully for the Melbourne Zoo, and I hope that both institutions will keep it working for a long time.

Steve Wieczorek is a keeper for the San Diego Zoo.

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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.