One of my favorite parts of working at Blank Park Zoo is learning about the animals that the Zoo cares for on a daily basis. Zoos are often thought of as places for recreation for family to visit during the summer, but we offer so much more to improve the quality of life of animals – both in zoos and in the wild.
As an animal keeper and enrichment coordinator at Blank Park Zoo, Kathy Cross works to create a great quality of life for the animals at the Zoo through behavior management. Kathy has been at the Zoo since 2001, where she started working in animal care in what is now Kids’ Kingdom. She has rotated to work in different areas of the Zoo for the past 13 years, having the opportunity to care for most of the Zoo’s animals. She spent most of her years working with the primates and carnivores (white-handed gibbons, Japanese macaque, tiger, lion, serval and snow leopards) before transitioning to her current role on the Veterinary Tech Support and Behavioral Husbandry team. “This was the best opportunity I could ever imagine and I relished it, feeling very fortunate to work with these magnificent creatures, knowing that my true passion was carnivores,” Kathy says.
What all does "behavior management" include?
It's our job to create stimulating situations and choices for the animals we take care of here at the Zoo, along with the daily feeding and cleaning. Behavior management is problem solving, training and enrichment. As keepers, we provide a change to the animals' environment giving them a “choice” – an opportunity to express a natural behavior, enhancing the welfare of the animal.
This can be an object placed into the exhibit for the animal to snuggle down into, tear up, carry around, roll it around the yard, lay on it and more. We help the animal go through a thinking process, get exercise and express some natural behavior. Quite often, it's very entertaining for the public to watch, too!
The training programs here act very similarly: it helps the animal’s brain to be stimulated and it provides great physical activity. But, the most important thing that training accomplishes is that we as keepers and trainers are able to monitor the animals’ health in a much better way, often gaining ground on small problems before they become bigger problems. Many of the trainers here are able to see into the animals’ mouths when needed, look at paws for overgrowth of nails, take temperatures while the animal calmly stands still, look at the bellies of animals and so much more. The animals are actually participating in their own health care!
Can you tell me more about what a typical day is like for you?
A typical day for me starts with a check of the animals under my care. These animals are the newly arrived animals to the Zoo that must go through a phase called quarantine. They aren't sick, but we want to closely monitor them after they arrive here to make sure that diseases don't rear up during the transport of the animal. We have a fairly new quarantine building facility where these animals are housed. It is not available to be viewed by the visitors; however, it is here on Zoo grounds.
After I have made sure that the animals in my care are bright, alert and responsive, I start in on the care of those animals, which includes preparing their individual diets, cleaning their pens, providing enrichment and closely monitoring how they are responding to their new environment. There are times, like now, when the animals vary immensely in the quarantine facility – from a sea lion to a rooster to a camel to parrots. This area is much different from the rest of the animal care areas, as the animals only stay in this area for typically 30 days to make sure they are healthy enough to be introduced into our collection.
Throughout the day there are many things that keepers do that visitors aren't aware of, such as veterinary procedures, unloading a semi-truck of hay bales or frozen fish and meat, doing behind-the-scenes tours, chatting with the public, cleaning kitchens, hallways, bathrooms and vehicles that we use. It's a labor-intensive job. At the end of my day, I make sure that the animals are still bright, alert and responsive and that they are all settled in for the night.
Does animal behavior change depending on the season?
Animal behavior does change depending on the season. One example would be the prairie dogs. In the winter, they go underground in their exhibit and hibernate. They may poke their heads out during the winter if it's a mild, sunny day; however, they usually aren't visible when there is snow on the ground.
Another example would be the big cats. Two of the three big cats species here at the Zoo like the colder temperatures – the tigers and snow leopards. Their natural habitats are colder, mountainous regions in China and Russia. During the nice, cold Iowa winters we have, they enjoy being outside, scampering around their exhibits and often being quite active, even rolling in the snow!
However, our summer months are a different story for these species. They are more inclined to find a spot in their exhibit that satisfies them and lie there all day long, not exerting themselves. Last summer we reconstructed the snow leopard exhibit to include an area that will allow cool air to blow down on the cat while it lies on the rocks at the back of the exhibit.
Do you have a favorite animal?
This is an easy one - the tiger! They are powerful, independent, smart and beautiful. I have been around them for many years and I'll never tire of watching them just be. Their presence is just HUGE and they so live in the moment! Whether they are lying content, strolling their exhibit, doing a training session with me, playing in the water or just looking at me with those amazing eyes, I'll always have the utmost respect and admiration for them.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I'm one of those lucky people who actually like their job and enjoy going to work, most days! I work with really good people and totally awesome animals! The years in this career have been so sweet and so bittersweet at the same time. Watching an animal come into this world is something that I think to myself, "Wow, I get paid to do this!", and then when it's their time to go, well, that's the bittersweet moment. I feel so lucky to be in their lives for the time they are with us, and being there with them while they take their last breath is a sad time but a privilege and a special moment, all in one.
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