When thinking of the Zoo it is typical of associating it with a warm, summer day and lots of visitors. However, the Zoo is alive and beautiful during the winter months. Mary Ellen Sheets, one of the Zoo’s elephant handlers, describes her job during the winter and reveals information on animal behavior, diet and care throughout the season.
Q: Do your duties as zoo keeper change with respect to the change in seasons?
A: The grounds upkeep is the main change for my daily routine by shoveling snow and maintaining animal habitats in all types of winter weather. With respect to the animals, my job is all about adapting to the animals’ needs. With limited outdoor activity, keeping our animals occupied is vital, so they are given enrichment items to keep them energetic and active while indoors.
Q: Do specific animals have a change in diet during the winter?
A: Elephants eat more hay [in the winter]. In the summer they eat tree limbs, which aren’t available in the winter, therefore, hay is used as a substitute. Guinea foul, a type of bird, eat higher-fat items such as grains and oats for protection against the cold. The animals are also regularly weighed and their diets are adjusted accordingly – cold weather often requires higher-calorie diets.
Q: Are there any behavioral changes in the animals?
A: Animal behavior usually stays the same. However, the snow leopards and tigers are more active, running, and highly visible [during the winter].
Q: What kind of habitat changes do the animals undergo during the winter? Where do some of the animals live that cant remain at the Zoo?
A: All of the animals remain at the Zoo except for the alligators and goats. The alligators return to St. Augustine, Florida for the winter season but they return as spring rolls around. The goats go back to the farm in which they were leased from in October, but will return in the spring.
Q: What is your favorite part about your job in the winter?
A: My favorite part is the intimate relationship I get with the animals. It’s up to us [the zoo keepers] to interact with them and keep them occupied [because there are less visitors]. It’s more of a challenge but I enjoy the challenge!
- Caroline Riedman, intern