Visit the zoo during the holiday season and pick your favorite animal
By Robin Ferruggia
Being a zookeeper at the Denver Zoo is more than just a job. It’s an experience, and it’s about the strong, caring relationships with the many and varied animals in the 80-acre zoo park that welcomes about 1.6 million visitors a year.
“I’ve been a keeper for almost 12 years, and hoofstock animals have always been my passion,” said Amanda Faliano, whose lifelong love of horses led her to become a hoofstock keeper at the zoo. Hoofstock animals are those that are four-legged and have hooves; such as horses, zebras, giraffes and others. “My favorite zoo animal is a handsome boy named Dobby, our youngest reticulated giraffe.”
A reticulated giraffe is a sub-species of giraffe from Africa. All the giraffes at the zoo are reticulated giraffes.
“I was the one to figure our Kiepele, Dobby’s mom, was even pregnant. Then just nine days later she gave birth to him on Feb. 28, 2017,” she said. “The hoofstock team has a list of names we keep for future animal babies, and we added Dobby to the list before his birth. But as a team we don’t name babies until they’ve made it through the first 24 hours. But when we got a picture of this baby giraffe, with his big elf-like ears, we all knew it would be Dobby, but didn’t make it official until the next day.
“Those first few weeks were very nerve-wracking for our team. We had to tube feed Dobby for his first few hours, and when we heard him nursing for the first time on his own we all broke down sobbing. He’s our sweet boy, and he’s actually licking my pants as we speak.”
Cathy Levell is an animal ambassadors keeper at the zoo. Animals that help the zoo provide educational experiences, behavior demonstrations, special events, and media appearances are called animal ambassadors. Her favorite animal is Seymour, a Eurasian eagle owl. One of the largest species of owls, it is found in a variety of habitats throughout Europe and Asia.
“Seymour is easily my favorite animal in our ambassador team,” she said. “We have been hand-raising him since he hatched on April 30, 2017. He’s being raised with the purpose of being a free-flighted bird in our animal ambassador program, which allows guests to really connect with animals in a unique way through shows and outreach programs.
“Seymour is a really interesting, curious bird, and I have a very strong relationship with him. When he sees me come into his habitat, he immediately starts calling to me, ready to train or just get some food. We’ve been training him since birth, and while he isn’t entirely free-flying yet, he has reached some major milestones, like crating himself and flying to a recall mat. He is very into his training, and anything he doesn’t want to do, he doesn’t have to, because we use positive reinforcement as a training method. So if he does what we ask, he’s rewarded.”
Becky Sturges is the lead keeper for the primates in the zoo. Her favorite animal is Tonks, an aye-aye. An aye-aye is a unique species of primate, and the largest nocturnal primate. One of the most unique things about the aye-aye is it has a middle finger that can move independently of its other fingers, and is especially useful in foraging for food, such as being able to probe for and remove insects and their larvae (eggs) in wood cavities. It also helps with drinking and grooming. The aye-aye drinks by quickly moving its finger between the liquid and its mouth. It is from Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean.
“The birth of our aye-aye, Tonks, has been a huge accomplishment for myself and the entire primates team. It took three tries to get aye-ayes Bellatrix and Smeagol to reproduce successfully,” she said. “The three losses were hard on our team, but we made adjustments after each one, and on Aug. 8 Bellatrix gave birth to Tonks. Even though Tonks survived birth, Bellatrix didn’t immediately show mothering behaviors, and wasn’t nursing. Our team, along with the veterinary staff, intervened that night and fed her.
“Like most keepers, we didn’t name Tonks until she made it through that first night. Her name, a reference to Harry Potter, honors her mom Bellatrix, another Harry Potter character, and our other aye-aye, that have had dark, mystical names.
“After two nights at the vet hospital we finally saw Bellatrix learning those mothering behaviors, and our team was able to scale back the supplemental feedings and care. Now, four months later, Tonks has been introduced to her dad, Smeagol, and is exploring her habitat in the zoo.
“And we don’t take a second of it for granted, knowing all the work it took our team to get here.”
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