A day in the life... of a reptile keeper. Part II

By Jessa Franck, Zookeeper

1:00pm – Lunch is over. Before heading out into the zoo again, I prepare a big lunch for the spur-thighed tortoises. Together they consume 2 beets, 2 yams, 6 carrots, 6 broccoli stalks, and 4 bunches of greens. In the wintertime their food consumption is greatly reduced. They don’t hibernate being native to Africa, but they spend most of their time lounging indoors where the temperature is kept at 90 degrees.

1:30pm – The afternoon is usually the time for feeding out rodents. Some guests are grossed out by it, but most will actually call their family and friends over for a closer look. You’re most likely to see us feeding reptiles on the first Wednesday of the month in the afternoon. Some snakes like the jumping pit viper only eat once a month, but the smaller snakes like the rubber boa eat every week. Our biggest snake, the 8-foot female red-tailed boa, eats 2 XXXL rats twice a month! Experienced reptile keepers know it’s important to feed pre-killed food because a live rat or mouse can injure your animal. You may have also wondered how we deal with the venomous animals in the collection. Any time we open up their exhibits, we have two keepers trained in the handling of venomous animals present. We do practice drills of how we would react if we were accidentally bit. Special safety equipment includes bite alarms, CO2 fire extinguishers, and a phone line connected directly to fire dispatch. All of our venomous animals are native to North and South America and are nowhere near as toxic as snakes found in Africa and Australia.

2:30pm – The afternoon is also when we renovate exhibits. You have to take into account many different things: Does your animal like to climb? Will it eat the plants? Will it drink from a water bowl? How many hiding places does it need? What is an appropriate substrate?

3:00pm – Time for another break. There’s a better chance of seeing pond turtles in the afternoon because it’s basking temperatures. Any time we find newly-hatched turtles, we collect them up and give them a head start in the Reptile House. When small, they are vulnerable to predation from crows and they experience limited growth in the winter during hibernation. Being kept warm indoors all year long allows them to grow much faster. Historically, we have identified over 130 individuals. Right now we have a single youngster, which was found October 20, 2006 weighing 0.2 ounces. It now weighs 2.25 ounces.

3:15pm- Back to the Reptile House. Every other day, we test the levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate in our aquatic animals’ water using a Colorimeter. I also have to find time to take care of feeder animals. We keep live mealworms, kingworms, earthworms, fruit flies, and tubifex worms in the Reptile House.

4:30pm – Time to go home.

Some people would be less than thrilled to find themselves in a building full of creepy crawlies, but I find myself talking to them just like any other animal. In some ways, they are the most challenging animals in the zoo to care for because they each have such unique needs and we have over 100 animals in the Reptile House. So please make sure to visit us next time you’re at the zoo. Just don’t tap on the windows!
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