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A Tale of Two Juniors

It’s a cold day in Buffalo, typical for this industrial city, which is dusted with a fine coat of snow. Traversing the numerous buildings and animal habitats at the Buffalo Zoo, but sporting warm and cheerful smiles, are Ashley Hager and Megan Hilsdorf, junior biochemistry majors at Keuka College.

Both put in 8-hour-a-day, 6-day work weeks for three weeks in January to conduct 140-hour, Field Period internships at the zoo. While Hager spent most of her time in the Reptile House, working in the Hellbendar (salamander) acquatics lab, Hilsdorf worked with primates, birds and other animals in the M&T Rainforest Falls exhibit. Both were exposed to sections of the zoo the public never sees,  such as where specialized meals are prepared for each exhibit, animals receive any needed veterinary care, and babies are are kept until they are old enough to venture out into the display habitats.

Thanks to a relative of Hilsdorf’s who offered use of his Buffalo apartment for three weeks when he wasn’t going to be there, both girls were able to stay in the city and commute to the zoo each day for the internship, which is an annual part of every Keuka student’s graduation requirements.

“They’re so short-staffed, and they told us we’ve been a big help,” said Hager.

White-faced Saki monkeys at Buffalo Zoo's rainforest exhibit

Modeled after Cascada de la Selva National Park in Canaima, Venezuela, the rainforest exhibit features mixed exhibits, where animals that would share habitats in the wild, also share small-scale habitats in captivity. For example, a primate exhibit features black-howler monkeys and small, yellow “common squirrel” monkeys. What appears to be an old shack on the second-story viewing platform actually hides additional cages for the many birds flying freely from tree to tree, among them Castle egret, boat-billed heron, toucan, macaws and scarlet ibis, which get their deep-red color, in part, from what they eat.

Hilsdorf rotated around the rainforest building, spending one week with Kristi Glovack, a four-year staffer who works with most of the primates; one week with Shanna Dempsey who oversees the wetlands, toucan and saki monkeys; and another week with Katie Meegan and the ocelots, small, spotted cats of the wild that could be considered miniatures of the cheetah. The pair of ocelots—Ayla, the female, and Pedro, the male, were introduced Jan. 15and were her favorite animals, she said. While Hilsdorf was not able to get near them, she did prepare diets, and made handmade “enrichment” toys for them to play with, which she hid when she was in their cage for cleaning. Later, she could watch the ocelots interact with the toys.

“Every day was new. It was fun!” said Hilsdorf, describing how the zookeepers, assistants and staff had to work as a team to make sure the animals are cared for and fed. “It’s a lot of work to run one area, let alone multiple areas, to make sure all are accounted for. I did a lot of cleaning and washing dishes. I had no idea how many you need for feedings and there’s a lot of cleaning ‘poo.’ It’s a workout to clean cages, shovel and refresh the soil. It’s important to keep the wild animals healthy because you can’t replace them.”

Ralphie, a red-footed tortoise, at the Buffalo Zoo

Meanwhile, Hager kept busy working across a number of exhibits in the Reptile House, where she was able to enter display exhibits and feed a few of the “safer” animals, such as turtles, euromastics (of the lizard family) and pancake tortoise.

Hager explained that reptiles too, have a form of hibernation which goes by another word in zoology, “braumation,” and even the alligators succumb to it, becoming far more passive and lethargic at a given time of year. Nonetheless, some of the creatures can be very dangerous and following protocol is critical to make sure that everyone is safe, Hager described. Most reptiles and amphibians required special habitats in exhibits that utilized carefully controlled temperatures for each animal.

Hager, left, apprentice keeper Christina Barone and Venus, a 15-year-old Egyptian spiny-tale lizard

For example, Hager was responsible for cleaning 27 large tanks of 321 docile, fully aquatic salamanders that the zoo is breeding in sterile tanks for eventual release into the wild. Special slipcovers had to be worn to enter that lab and zookeepers are required to step through a bleach-solution “footbath” at entry. Near the Hellbender (salamander) lab was the large work/kitchen area where nearly an entire wall was stacked with oversize plastic drawers, filled with various worms, which served as food for the amphibians.

The turtles produce “a lot of slime,” Hager described, given her experience draining their pool in the attic level of the building.

This Field Period has been the best yet, says Hager, who has conducted other internships at Southport Veterinary Services, a large animal vet office in Pine City, N.Y. and a small-animal clinic, the Broadway Animal Hospital in Elmira N.Y.

“Working with reptiles and amphibians was a great experience,” Hager said, adding that she enjoyed learning the husbandry of the different exotic animals, as well as how to care for them. However, serving at the zoo requires hard work, dedication and teamwork “because it can be very chaotic at times. There are a large amount of animals and everyone has to contribute to get the job done.”

For Hilsdorf, even with the excitement at the zoo, she’s concluded that she’d prefer to work with cats and dogs.

Hilsdorf and macaws in the exhibit

“As cool as this is, I just feel more comfortable with the domestic animals,” Hilsdorf said. “With the wild animals, there’s a lot of pressure. I know from meetings and stuff, the vet is on a tight schedule (there is only one for the whole zoo) and it’s hard to get to all the animals, and if there is an emergency, what do you do?”

Hager said her Field Period experience helped her learn how to communicate with others, as well as helped her experience a variety of fields in which a vet can work.

“I have learned that you get what you put into your [internship],” Hager concluded. “My Field Periods have allowed me to determine that I want to be a veterinarian and I will work hard and dedicate myself to become one.”

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