Zoo Blog - Blank Park Zoo

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Zoo Blog

Find out about the animals, events, behind the scenes information and more from the staff of Blank Park Zoo.

A Day in the Life of Zookeeper Kathy Cross

Posted on 03/25/2014 at 10:20 AM

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.

You may also like:

Keeper Spotlight: Colleen Cassidy 
Keeper Spotlight: Tucker Harrison
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Wild Asia: Journey to Save the Tiger

Posted on 03/18/2014 at 2:25 PM

Tigers are an incredibly powerful and majestic creature. This species, specifically the Amur (or Siberian) tiger, is under threat in this rapidly changing world.

Join Blank Park Zoo as we welcome Dr. Jonathan Slaght, Project Manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program, as he addresses the work the organization is doing to protect this animal. Dr. Slaght manages a research project that measures the impact of poachers on the Amur tiger. Poachers seek and kill the tiger for its stunning pelt, bones and other body parts, many of which are used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines.

The Russia Program looks at road closures and their impact on the access that poachers have to these animals. In 1920, there were an estimated 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today, their numbers hover in the low thousands, with only about 400 Amur tigers remaining. Dr. Slaght is also working to improve the scientific quality of wide-range surveys, which are used to find estimates of tigers remaining in the wild.

Dr. Jonathan Slaght has been traveling to Russia since 1992—when he was just 15 years old—and to the province Primorye in the Russian Far East since 1995. He has been involved in Amur tiger conservation in Russia since 2002. In addition to his work with tiger conservation, Dr. Slaght is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Blakiston’s fish owl, an endangered species endemic to northeast Asia.

Dr. Jonathan Slaght of the Wildlife Conservation Society

Learn how Dr. Slaght and his organization are using camera monitoring and rehabilitation to protect and save the Amur tiger at Blank Park Zoo Thursday, April 3, 2014 as part of our Wild Asia Conservation Series.

The Wild Asia: Journey to Save the Amur Tiger event will include cocktails and appetizers, time to visit our Discovery Center exhibit and chat with Dr. Slaght.

Seating is limited - click here to purchase your tickets today!

March 14 is Learn about Butterflies Day!

Posted on 03/11/2014 at 10:49 AM

At Blank Park Zoo, we believe that our native pollinators, such as butterflies, not only provide an economic and practical value to humans, but they also have intrinsic value in their own right. That’s why we are on a mission to encourage citizens and organizations to become aware of pollinator issues and to take action to preserve them. We believe that no effort is too small and that each of us can help make a difference to protect the biodiversity around us.

Many pollinator species are declining due to a variety of reasons, including global climate change, loss of habitat and feeding resources, and some modern agricultural practices. For example, butterflies require large corridors of suitable habitat to navigate between nectar sources, and our increasing rates of development and expanding networks of roads have presented them with formidable challenges. According to Monarch Watch, butterflies lose habitat areas equivalent to the size of Illinois every 16 years – that’s an average of 2.2 million acres lost per year!

Many of Iowa’s native butterflies are listed as special concern, threatened, and endangered. The Baltimore checkerspot, Common ringlet, and Purplish copper are just three species considered as high priority for conservation need in Iowa. 

Baltimore Checkerspot

Common Ringlet

Purplish Copper

Butterflies require not only connecting, high-quality swaths of habitat, but also specific types of plants that help them to feed and reproduce. Each species of butterfly has specific sets of needs these plants must meet to be used. In Iowa, the majority of our butterflies need region-specific, grassland plants.  However, these plants are just as threatened as the butterflies they help – since European settlement, Iowa has lost more than 99.9 percent of its native, tall-grass prairie. Iowa butterflies and the habitats in which they live need our help.

How can you help? Starting in the spring of 2014, you can join Plant.Grow.Fly. by creating a much-needed pollinator habitat at your home, school or even place of work. Our expertly researched garden recipes will help you plant flowers and grasses that benefit local species the most. Our easy-to-follow recipes can be formed to your landscaping needs, from pet-friendly to sweet-smelling, low-budget to no expenses spared. Gardens can range from several plants in a pot to a whole backyard ecosystem. Once you register your garden with Blank Park Zoo, you can order a Plant.Grow.Fly. sign to proudly display in your new habitat, showing your support of our Midwestern pollinators.

I think we can all agree that the current decline of butterflies and bees is alarming. Our project aims to focus on the positive: each and every one of us can do our part to preserve these beautiful creatures by simply planting flowers in our yard! More to come on how to join Plant.Grow.Fly. this spring.

Summer Safari registration is now open!

Posted on 03/04/2014 at 11:33 AM


Registration for Summer Safari is now open! 

Summer Safari is a week-long immersion in Zoo education. With camps for ages 3 to 7th grade, the Zoo provides a unique learning experience for children to:

  • Learn about and encounter firsthand exotic wildlife,
  • Understand the science of these creatures’ habits and how the Zoo cares for them,
  • Make the connection to the conservation and protection of these animals, and
  • Care for the conservation of our environment. 


Exploring and meeting a Zoo aldabra tortoise up close


Taking a break from making crafts

Summer Safari camps are discounted for Zoo members. Learn more about the opportunities for your child to explore at the Zoo this summer and register today!


Camp tour of the Zoo



Experience Kids Kingdom

Posted on 02/25/2014 at 2:33 PM

Kids Kingdom is often a crowd favorite at Blank Park Zoo since this is where visitors can find animals to feed and greet! The area has animals that you might see on a regular basis here in Iowa. While visiting this specific area of the Zoo you can find a variety of goats, a pair of llamas, pigs, a donkey and Zebu. It is a must for visitors to take a look behind the playground for the Koi deck where they can feed the Koi fish. This area is special because it allows visitors to interact with the animals – you get to feed and pet them all!

Due to the extreme cold and ice this winter, many of the animals have been kept inside the barns all winter; the donkey and Zebu areas especially! We have Iowa weather to thank for that! If the temperature does reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the goat barn is open and the public is given access to feed the goats and llamas.  If you stop by the Zoo on the weekend or a holiday (and it is at least 40 degrees), look for a sign inviting you into the goat barn!

Another component of this area is the playground. Once the area thaws, the playground will be open for kids of all ages to enjoy and climb on plus the animals will be out for visitors to interact with. New to Kids Kingdom this past year is the goat bridge! This has been a nice addition to the area and the goats absolutely love it. Often times after Kids Kingdom is closed for the day, the goats enjoy lying at the top and looking out into the Zoo. The goats also enjoy running across the bridge as a group!

The Zoo staff that specializes in the Kids Kingdom area is currently prepping for the spring and taking care of all the animals on a daily basis. As you can imagine, our Zoo animals are getting antsy for the time of year that they can be outside and enjoy the warm weather every day!


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