The Other Side of the Moat - Part 3

By Scott Johnston, Keeper-Aide Volunteer

August 28, 2009

8 a.m.
No matter how bulky the bars or how sturdy the locks; stepping inside the Sacramento Zoo’s super-sized kitty-house is still a check-the-heart-rate moment.

Accompanied by keeper Kate, I made a brief stop in the proverbial “lions den”, home to the zoo’s Sumatran tigers, African lions, and Jaguars and small cats – Geoffroy and Margays. Needless to say it was a very humbling way to kick off my third day of participating in the Zoo’s Keeper Aide program.

Paying careful attention to my distance from each cat’s den I made my way past each enclosure, stepping along on the safe side of a white line painted down the middle of the floor. The fluidity of each animal’s movement was mesmerizing and I couldn’t help but meet their gaze as I slipped past on my way to a small room where their special diets are prepared.

A “small” female Sumatran tiger watched curiously as I moved by.
House cats they are not, they don’t drink milk from saucers and they don’t play patty cake with balls of yarn. These incredibly powerful, yet highly endangered, creatures hale from the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Females weigh between 165 and 240 pounds fully grown. These cats and their keepers are all business and after a brief look at how their breakfasts are prepared, Kate and I move on to another of my personal favorites – the Giant anteaters.

This couple reminds me of two rather large, yet laid-back dogs, standing three feet tall and weighing around 120 pounds. At night they sleep curled up head to tail inside their own personal kennels. In the wild Giant anteaters sleep in hollowed out depressions in the ground for upwards of 15 hours each day, covering their bodies with their long tails. Grey in color with thick, shaggy fur and a bold black and white shoulder stripe, the Giant anteater possesses a long, tubular snout set on a narrow head and short, stout legs.

While the two slurp down large helpings of a tasty, milk shake-like concoction of 2 kinds of blendered chow, water and orange juice, I work on their outer enclosure, hosing out the inside of their swimming hole and polishing the large window pane that fronts the exhibit.

As their name suggests, in the wild ants make a large portion of the anteater’s diet. In captivity, however, the anteaters evidently didn’t get the memo. As I move along the front of the enclosure I can’t help but notice a long trail of ants marching along unhindered – enrichment!.

Of the four species of anteater, the Giant anteater is the most vulnerable.
Their fairly nonchalant personality makes them targets for being hunted throughout their range for meat, skins and as trophies. Some indigenous people still mistakenly believe anteaters kill cattle and dogs. When they finish their meals we move them back outside where the female quickly finds a sunny patch of dirt for a nap and the male heads out to patrol the perimeter.

Giant anteaters are solitary animals except for breeding pairs or mothers with offspring. If an encounter between two individuals does occur, they will usually ignore one another, that seems to be the case with these two as well.
Although they can be active both day and night, they prefer a more nocturnal existence near people and civilization.

Their long, sharp claws are excellent for ripping open termite mounds discovered with their keen sense of smell. They force their snout inside and use their two-foot long, sticky tongue to lick up the insects inside, carefully avoiding any soldier ants. While these two appear unassuming and approachable, they, just like all exotic animals, are very unpredictable.

Their sense of hearing compensates for their poor eyesight and alerts the anteater to predators in the area. Their claws are so sharp they are even able to kill a jaguar in defense. Because these claws do not retract, they have evolved to walk on the outer sides of their feet with the claws curled upward and inward.

Next up is one of the Sacramento Zoo’s matriarchs, the female the Spotted Hyena. She watches us intently as we move into her den. At 25 years old, standing nearly three feet tall and weighing close to 130 pounds she has been at the zoo for 14 years.

The Spotted hyena is the most numerous of the three hyena species though it is far from abundant. They have been exterminated in most of South Africa and greatly reduced in many areas of their savanna range. Primarily threatened by loss of habitat and reduction of large hoof stock prey to poachers, they are also hunted for fear they will hurt livestock.

After a yummy meat treat from Kate, the hyena waits patently while I clean one side of her den before assuming my next job as her personal pool man, draining, scrubbing and refilling her water hole.

After Kate moves her from her primary sleeping quarters I give it a once over with the hose and disinfectant before adding fresh straw to her bed and leaving a nice helping of feline diet biscuits as a treat. All the while, just feet away, she keeps a close, silent vigil on my progress. This is one boss I don’t want to cross.

While viewing the animals from the public perspective is great, my time backstage with the carnivores once again gave me a perspective on some of nature’s most powerful predators that I could never get anywhere else.
I can’t wait to see what happens next week on The Other Side of the Moat.

Stay tuned…

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