The Other Side of the Moat

By Scott Johnston, Keeper-Aide Volunteer

August 14, 2009

8 a.m.
I’ve arrived! After 27 years of waiting, contemplating and hesitating I’ve finally made my way to the rear entrance of the Sacramento Zoo for my first day in the Keeper Aide program.

Just two weeks prior my life long adoration of all creatures great and small led me to the zoo’s Website and finally Volunteer Coordinator Valorie Schneider. After the mandatory orientation I was ready to go…

Next stop – The Other Side of the Moat.

Feelings of excitement (Oh, man, I can’t wait to sidle up to a Giraffe), anxiety (what if I don’t get to sidle up to a Giraffe?) and apprehension (what if I have to sidle up to a Giraffe?) fill my head as I’m buzzed in.

After making my way through the initial getting-settled-in formalities I find out that I will be assigned to the Ungulates, i.e. giraffes, zebras, bongos and ostriches, etc… YES!

While all the animals are fantastic (there are four other groups, primates, birds, carnivores and reptiles that I will be working with in the future) this is the bunch I am most excited about.

While I’m waiting for the keepers I’ll by assisting I try to look as much like a seasoned veteran as possible. My wardrobe, however, screams rookie.
Volunteer’s Keeper Aide T-shirt - Check.
Yellow and red nametag - Check.
Strange looking half rubber, half leather boots, recycled from a long-lost equestrian career - Check.

I’m set. Now what?

Ungulate experts Lindsay and Melissa arrived shortly there after and we we’re off! To most people mixing it up in the dirt, dung and dietary divisions required to care for a variety of large herbivore would not be the highlight of their day at the zoo. Not so for me, I enjoy the dirty work.

I spend the first part of my morning sifting through giraffe droppings, remaking straw beds and using a step ladder to clean water and food buckets that hang more than seven feet above the ground. All the while Skye, a 13-foot tall, and 11-year old reticulated giraffe, who has assigned herself as my foreman and keeps a watchful eye on me from just outside her barn, carefully critiques my work.

Skye shares the barn with roommates Guddy (11-years old, 13-feet tall) and Val, who is also 14-years old and stands 14-feet tall. The reticulated giraffe is the most well known of the nine giraffe subspecies, and is by far the giraffe most commonly seen in zoos.

9:45 a.m.
After the giraffes Lindsay, Melissa and I move on to the Bongo enclosure. The Bongo is the largest and heaviest forest antelope. Both males and females have spiraled lyre-shaped horns. The bright chestnut colored Bongos are found in rain forest with dense undergrowth. Specifically they are found in the Lowland Rain Forest of West Africa and the Congo Basin to the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan. Large-scale and continuous hunting has completely eliminated bongos in some areas.

While the keepers move the two females and one male into a holding pen I stay just out of sight breaking up alfalfa and dropping it into their feeding troughs.

The Bongo is a shy, flighty animal and the less stress the better when interacting with them.
We then move around the enclosure picking of droppings and laying out a vegetable treasure hunt consisting of small piles of lettuce, yams and other greens that are placed intermittently throughout the enclosure and serve as treats for the trio.

11 a.m.
After a short break my last stop of the day is at the enclosure shared by the zoo’s population of Red Kangaroos, Emus and Bennett’s Wallabies. These animals are quite laid back allowing me to move about freely while collecting the droppings.

While the four male ‘roos hang out off to the side and Wallabies hide out indoors, the two female Emus cruise along with me as a I make my way around. At four to five feet tall the birds can be intimidating, but Melissa assures me that the two large girls have been raised at the zoo since they were young and are quite used to keepers being near.

Before leaving the enclosure I’m allowed to hand-feed Pogo, the most social of the red kangaroos. He calmly sprawls in the sun as I feed him a handful of leaves and corn. He takes it much like a dog eating a treat.

Overall I have to say my four-hour day felt like 20 minutes. The interaction with the animals was awesome and unexpected and the “close-up” aspects of the program were extremely educational. I feel as though I’ve discovered a hidden voluntary gem and I can’t believe there aren’t more animal lovers breaking down the gate to do this.

I can hardly wait to see what else is in store on The Other Side of the Moat.

Stay tuned…

Find out more about volunteer opportunities at the Sacramento Zoo volunteer webpage.
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