The Small Mammal Building
**You can find part-one in the “Zoo’pendous Summer!” series linked here: https://mildnwild.com/2017/03/15/its-a-zoo-part-one-preparing-for-my-internship/
My first day interning as a zookeeper was in the Small Mammal department. This building housed a variety of critters from small primates, to exotic squirrels, two kinkajous, fruit bats, and even familiar critters like mice and a guinea pig; plus much more. The zookeeper I would be working with was Mitch. My first interaction with Mitch consisted of him pulling up in a golf cart smoking a cigarette and wearing dark sunglasses. Not the best first impression but I was willing to give him a chance. He barely grunted a hello, and once we zoomed away from the gift shop he grumbled “I’m really hungover.” I laughed, maybe a little uncomfortably but I have to admit, he grew on me over the next two months.
The Small Mammal building was essentially two long hallways on each side of the building with the public viewing in the middle. Our sides consisted of a line of wooden doors with padlocks. Each door lead to a small enclosure that house the various mammals. Directly opposite of each door, was the glass that the public could view the animals through. The public side of the building was air conditioned, however ours was not. This was due to the need for a natural environment for the small animals that were housed in the building.
I was fortunate enough to work with two other interns during my time in the Small Mammal department. Angelique was the one to show me most of the ropes and pretty much immediately took me under her wing. She was a nineteen-year-old, petite Hispanic girl who was very perky and sweet. Ashley usually came in the afternoons, she was one tough chick, but she warmed up to me eventually. Both of them had been working at the zoo as interns for much longer then I had so I learned a lot from them.
The first task of every day was to do some touch-up cleaning in each enclosure, take the food and water bowls out to wash them, and then wash the glass on the inside and outside of each enclosure. Touch-up cleaning consisted of squeezing in the small door and maneuvering around various jungle-gym type structures (these were monkey’s after all) with a bucket, paper towels, and animal-friendly glass cleaner. All the while, trying to not smack your head on a tree, or upset the monkey’s, and maybe keep some dignity while getting gawked at by zoo guests. Once we were done picking up piles of feces, dead cockroaches, and old food (zookeeping is not a job for the faint-hearted), we took the food and water bowls out of the enclosures and brought them to the sink to wash. Mitch prepared all the diets, which consisted of various fruits and monkey biscuits, which was put in the proper bowls and then we would redistribute the bowls to each enclosure. This was done every morning, along with hosing down the bat enclosure. Cleaning the bat cave (literally) was an interesting task that involved dragging a garden hose into a pitch-black enclosure. The hose often became kinked, killing the water pressure. The bats thankfully would shy away from the light of the door, which we often had to keep cracked open in order to run the hose through. This was generally a two person job that Angelique and I would complete in the morning, as Ashley didn’t come in until the afternoon. We definitely had our share of laughs when a guest would come by and press the button on the outside of the glass that illuminated the enclosure, allowing the public to view the bats. This generally caused the small bats to swarm frantically around our heads for a few moments, and the look of horror on a guests face when they realized what was happening was always funny.
The routine of cleaning and feeding took up most of the morning, however I was fortunate enough to see another department most days during my time in Small Mammals. Mitch was also on the hand-raising staff. This meant that he was one of the few zookeepers that bottle-fed the baby animals in the nursery. I saw a lot of different babies pass through the nursery during my time at the zoo. The most memorable would be the jackals, the young warthogs (Lion King pun intended), a baby wallaby, a badger, and two baby jaguars born during my last week. It was incredible to see how fast they grew, and the dedication of all the keepers that worked so tirelessly to stick to a very precise, round-the-clock feeding schedule.
Lunch was generally eaten around noon at a picnic table in the service area of the zoo. The service area consisted of multiple feed rooms, the veterinary clinic, a kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and housing for some of the staff. In Small Mammals, the day generally slowed down after lunch. Usually there was more cleaning and then the animals were fed again around four about an hour before I would leave. The Small Mammal building was very laid back and there was always a lot of laughter.
There were many memorable stories from the Small Mammal building. One day, I was cleaning one of tamarin enclosures (a small monkey) when this little guy just came right up and tried to grab my phone! He actually put it up to his ear, which I assume he saw guests do through the glass of his enclosure. I then tried to grab my phone back from him and he ended up slapping me across the face! I had a small cut from his tiny nails on my nose, but it wasn’t too bad. I definitely had a good laugh that I was slapped by a monkey. Another daily occurrence that always made me laugh was trying to clean out the exotic squirrel enclosure. These guys liked to jump out as soon as the door opened, but if you blew raspberries at them, they ran. I never felt more ridiculous slowly opening a door and loudly blowing raspberries at a squirrel. My favorite animals in the building were two squirrel monkeys. One was named Ms. Tiny and she loved to take grapes out of your hand.
There were a few animals housed outside the building, two blue macaws sat outback and a cage full of about twenty squirrel monkeys were housed in the front. The blue macaws were put out onto a perch in the ponds area every day. Mitch would have the two birds step onto a long wooden pole, which we would then walk over to the ponds and then gently perch them for a few hours before they came back to their home. One day, I tripped in the back in the mud and ended up rolling down a small hill in front of Mitch, Ashley, and Angelique. We had a great laugh about that one! The squirrel monkeys out front required daily care as well which included feeding and raking their enclosure. The monkeys would often jump on our backs when we were cleaning, which was always fun.
My time in the Small Mammal building was full of rewarding experiences. It was nice to have a more laid back day due to the very physically demanding days I had in the other departments. It was also nice to be inside when it was over one-hundred degrees outside. I will always fondly look back on the days when I monkey’d around in the Small Mammal building!
**Please stay tuned for the next post in my “Zoo’pendous Summer” series to read about the three other departments I worked in during my internship.
For tips on how to find animal related internships and volunteer work yourself, please check out my how-to article provided in the link below.