My Life with Animals: Feisty Felines

As bobcat kittens grow up, they practice life skills with their litter mates and of course, mom. Whisper, our bobcat, didn’t have any litter mates with whom to practice so it all fell to her surrogate moms, Adrienne and me. She would run through the house and out of nowhere, leap on my head and try to chew on my face! She seemed to have so much fun as she would purr up a storm while she was doing it. At only ten weeks of age, she had been with us for five weeks, and her skills were developing quickly. Although only a kitten, she was quite strong and amazingly athletic. She had the most amazing ability to run across the walls! As if she was straight out of the Matrix, she used every surface in the house to move about. When she wasn’t running out her energy, we would carry her everywhere.

One day, I was holding this cute, cuddly ball of fur when suddenly, she turned and with total ease and speed, reached up and grabbed my jugular! She was so quick and had such precision it was impressive, and scary! Her little predator teeth had grabbed my jugular with such acuteness that she had it separated out and I could feel it pulsing in her mouth. She didn’t bite down, she was actually rather gentle as she looked me in the face and purred louder than I had ever heard her purr. I swear, if she could talk I think she was saying, “Look mom, I got it! Did I do it right?!” I stayed very still for what seemed like five minutes (and was probably only 20 seconds) until she let go. I turned to her and said, “Okay kitten, that’s not something you will ever need, so let’s not practice that anymore.” It was at the moment that I knew no matter how little she was, she was still a wild cat with all her instincts and abilities and we could never take it for granted.

Photo credit: National Geographic Kids

When I was in college, all I wanted to do was work with big cats. I thought I would spend my life sitting on the Serengeti studying the behavior of lions and leopards and cheetahs. My first semester in graduate school I did an ethological (animal behavior) study of the cheetahs at the Knoxville Zoo for one of my classes. I spent months going to the zoo for a few hours three or four times a week to sit and study the cheetahs. They had just opened this new large exhibit and my research was on space use. So I was looking at how the group used the space: did they have favorite spots, did they compete for spots, etc? I learned two things about doing field research with big cats that semester. First, big cats don’t move much! Second, there was no way I could spend my life doing field research!

When I was a senior undergraduate, I did an internship with big cats at the Buffalo Zoo. It was a dream come true. It was 1990 and the zoo was just beginning to modernize its big cat areas. There was a new holding building with two large yards attached on either side. One side housed the lions, the other the tigers. A long narrow corridor down the middle separated the row of holding cages on each side. There were four or five large holding areas on each side leading out to each yard. The cats could be shifted in and out so that they all had time in the yards but could be separated out if needed.

Photo credit: Exmoor Zoo

One day, a young, 6-month-old black leopard arrived at the zoo. She had been confiscated from some people who were trying to keep her as a pet. They had declawed the poor thing and were taking her in to have her canines removed when she was confiscated by the authorities. The process of removing claws and teeth of wild cats is illegal, considered cruel within the zoological industry and completely unacceptable. Here was the big challenge for the zoo, she couldn’t live with any of the other cats. With no claws she couldn’t defend herself and would be killed by the other cats. There was no feasible way to give her time in the yards because there was already a tight schedule trying to get the lions and tigers enough time outside. The lead keeper, Chris, had an idea one day, “Let’s train her,” she said. “We can take her to schools and teach people with her. Who wants to train her with me?” Chris asked all her keepers. No one said a word. In 1990, training zoo animals was not common like it is now. The only ones training animals were bird shows, elephants and circuses. The only real reputable facility at that time training cats was the Cincinnati Zoo. None of the keepers wanted to do it. There I stood, 19 years old and completely naive, “I’ll do it,” I said anxiously. “Can I do it with you?” Chris accepted my offer and I spent the next few months coming in after classes throughout the week helping to train this cat. We trained her to walk on a leash, sit, lay down, roll over to show her belly spots and jump from table to table. It was my first training experience and it was the most rewarding thing I had ever done in my life. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” I declared at age 19 and here I am today!

After twenty-five years, I finally have the privilege of training a wild cat again. It has been two and a half years now and every day I get to spend with Whisper is a gift. Just like that little black leopard, Whisper gets to inspire school children and adults alike as she shows off her natural behaviors. She still greets me with purrs and a bit of chewing on my arms, but she has never practiced on my jugular again!


Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”

California Avian Training Workshop

WorkshopThis past Sunday and Monday Turtle Bay hosted a newly created workshop for animal training professionals called the California Avian Training Workshop. The workshop was created with the collaboration of Chandelle Cotter of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage, AK.   The workshop was more of a success than we ever could have imagined! We had 15 participants representing seven facilities including: the AWCC, Bird TLC of Anchorage, Happy Hollow Zoo, Folsom Zoo, Effie Nature Center, Discovery Kingdom, and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

WorkshopWe packed so much into two days it is almost unbelievable. I delivered a 90 minute interactive class on general training then, Lisa Clifton Bumpass, a Behavioral Analysis Consultant of San Jose, provided a workshop that was progressive and fascinating. The best thing about her talk? We have already adopted these philosophies and are doing most of the techniques she described. Looking at the animals needs throughout its whole life, rather than just what is needed it the moment. Setting your animals up to build on one training after another so they have an entire repertoire of behaviors that help them have a great life, from baby through geriatric life. We did sessions on raptor handling and looked at the history and future of our industry and Lisa, Chandelle, and I did an hour long Q & A session where we helped participants with training issues and challenges. We spent each afternoon doing demonstrations of the animal training we do here at Turtle Bay.

WorkshopAll I can say is that it was all fantastic (and a bit exhausting)! I have to give HUGE kudos to my team of trainers who just blew everyone away with their knowledge and successes with the animals. Let me tell you how wonderful our animals are too: we set up all the participants upstairs in the foyer area of the Museum and Timber walked from lap to lap on each person! Curie, our raven, showed off her intelligence by demonstrating her puzzle-solving behaviors and Kinta, the kookaburra, flew and landed on each and every participant! Even Whisper, who is a little more particular, let each person meet her! It wasn’t all just fun and games though: we demonstrated Loki voluntarily participating in getting an injection and Gidget willingly taking oral medicine from a syringe. Lisa told the participants to “pay attention, because what you are seeing here is cutting edge; you won’t see this kind of stuff at many facilities.” It is probably the highest compliment I have ever received by a peer and well-respected person in this industry!

WorkshopWe provided surveys and the comments were thoughtful and touching. One survey said, “I wish I was able to stay longer and learn more from you. I really like your methods for training, your mentality for animal welfare, and your priorities for your facility.”

WorkshopIt wasn’t just my team in Animal Care who made it a success, it is all of Turtle Bay. Our animals would not have the incredible lives they have without the buy-in and conscientiousness of all Turtle Bay staff–from Grounds and Maintenance to Guest Services. I have to thank Melissa in Guest Services for being there for us for any needs throughout the days. Finally, I want to thank my boss and CEO of Turtle Bay, Mike, because none of this could happen without his trust and freedom to do my job. It became very apparent that one main challenge that many facilities have is that their CEO and upper management team, including their board, put time constraints and expectations on training of animals. This puts stress on the trainers and leads to them using methods to get the animals trained “in time” that are less than ideal for the animals. I thank our CEO, Boards, and our entire Turtle Team for putting the animals’ welfare first, above and beyond our desires and needs.

WorkshopSharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”


My Life With Animals: That’s a Stinky One

Sweet PeaIt had been about a month since Sweet Pea came into our lives. She was so much fun. So sweet and extremely playful. She loved to play spray us all evening. There she goes, running into the kitchen away from us in the living room. A few seconds later, a small, chubby bottomed skunk would come running back at us, tail up and loaded! Charging at us full force she would stop short, throw her front feet in the air, stomp down on the ground, scrape them backwards and quickly whip her rear around at us! Never once did she actually try to spray us. I really wasn’t worried about her actually spraying because this was all play. The only time skunks spray is when they think their life is in danger and she clearly thought we were family so it wasn’t an issue. The only thing we ever experienced was the occasional little skink fart. Yes, all mammals get gas and Sweet Pea’s were, well, rather fragrant!

Sweet PeaOnce grown, Sweet Pea was going to be living in an exhibit for the public to enjoy. It’s not that we don’t trust our guests, but sometimes children are a little less predictable than skunks! If one happened to throw something at the exhibit or bang on the fencing, we didn’t want to take a chance that Sweet Pea may mistakenly think she was in danger. Being able to accurately spray 14’ we thought it would be wise to have her scent gland removed.

Sweet PeaI was about to find out that this is much easier said than done. The scent glands of a striped skunk are simply enhanced, specialized anal glands. The gland sits right inside the anal opening and is not sitting there loosely, but rather, wrapped with a web of tiny muscles that control when and how much spray will be emitted.

Sweet PeaEveryone knows how strong a skunk’s spray smells when your dog comes home covered in it. But that isn’t even a full dose. Imagine if you smelled the entire load! Well, the vets were not willing to find out. The surgery to remove the gland requires a very delicate hand to gently remove all of the muscles and then the gland… without nicking it at all. One slip and the full concentration of oily pungent, foul aroma would fill the room. Once in the room, it will never come out. There are stories of it destroying vet clinics! So the search was on for a willing vet to attempt the surgery. We found a vet in town who was willing, but under one condition: the surgery was not to be done at the clinic, but outdoors at Turtle Bay itself!

Sweet PeaUsing portable equipment, the vet arrived at Turtle Bay. We decided to set up in our outdoor quarantine mew. If a gland was nicked there, it would be able to wash down and air out. I had no idea at the time quite how invasive this surgery was going to be. Once inside, I was shocked not only at the size of the glands, but the amount of muscles engulfing them. The vet carefully separated each little piece of muscle and removed it. One after another until the gland was free. Then a little snip and it was out! “Get the sealed baggy,” he said to us. “Don’t let it break open putting it in.” We carefully held the baggy as he placed the dangerous stink bomb in and then sealed it and put it into a second bag. “Get it outside!” we all exclaimed in unison. Whew, one down and one to go! The vet turned to us and declared, “That was the easy one.” What did he mean by that? Well from all the stories he had heard, most vets are successful with the first one, but once they realize how easy it was they get complacent and slip up with the second one. He was determined to learn from their mistakes and he did! Two glands out, no seepage, no leaks, no breakage… no smell!

While I thought this was the worst of it and her recovery from the surgery would be pretty quick, I was sadly mistaken. The vet informed us that some skunks have complications with the recovery from this surgery.

Photo credit to Carli Davidson
Photo credit to Carli Davidson

Not long after we got home with her, I noticed something wrong with her rear end. “What is that?” I asked as I noticed something sticking out. “Oh my!” I exclaimed as my husband, Wayne, quickly joined me. “She’s prolapsing, those are her insides!” About 2 inches of her intestines were hanging out and they were not going to go back in on their own. One thing I love about my career is that I am always learning new things and this was one extremely new thing. I had to figure out how to reinsert a skunk’s intestines back inside of her. The vet had sent me home with some lubricant so I grabbed a little and tried putting it on. It had an anti-swelling property to it, so I thought it may help to make it easy, but like usual, I was wrong. As soon as I touched it, Sweet Pea let out a squeal that sounded like I was slaughtering a pig. I asked Wayne to help hold her as I tried again. Nothing, she just squealed in pain and I was getting nowhere. It had to get in back in or the tissue would dry out and start to die. Every time she squealed, I stopped, but I couldn’t do that. Even though I was hurting her, I had to keep going. Wayne held her firmly in his arms, her head buried in his arm, I slowly started closest to her body pushing her intestines back inside. A little at a time it was going in. I was almost there, but every time I let up the littlest bit, her body would constrict and it would push it back out. “Please, Sweet Pea, let me do this,” I pleaded as tears were welling up in my eyes. I kept going, patiently, and finally, it was all back in. I moved my hand away and it starting coming back out. So, like the little Dutch boy with the hole in the dam, I plugged it up with my finger. Yes, I shoved my finger up a skunk’s butt and held it there for about 20 minutes! “How long would be long enough?” I thought. I cautiously removed my finger and thankfully it all stayed in.

This was not the end of it either. An hour later I saw her turn around and plop, out it came again. This time, I caught it quickly and only about an inch was exposed. So, yup, in my finger went. I sat on the floor with a skunk in my lap, my finger firmly planted up her rear as we sat and watched tv. I spent most of the next six hours this way, just hoping it would all stay in. “What am I going to do tonight,” I thought. “If she prolapses in the middle of the night and I don’t see it, she will be dead by morning.” This terrified me so I cleared my nightstand, placed her kennel on it and set my alarm for every 30 minutes. Every time my alarm went off, I rolled over, turned on a flashlight to get a good look and then, back to sleep for another 25 minutes. Thankfully, she made it through the night. Through all of this, she never once tried to bite us.

Sweet PeaThe next day everything seemed fine. She was keeping her insides inside, which was much appreciated! Over the next week, she seemed to be doing well. She was still pretty swollen, but that was to be expected. Then on day 6, plop, her insides fell out again! This happened many more times over the next month. She would be fine for a few days and then it would repeat again and again. I was starting to think she was never going to hold onto her insides. But she was healing and it was less intense each time with less coming out and less time I had to spend in my Dutch boy role for it to stay put. Finally, after six weeks, she stopped and never prolapsed again. As she continued to grow into a healthy young skunk, I learned that the de-scenting of a skunk is a much bigger ordeal than anyone ever realizes. It is very invasive and traumatic for all involved. In all my years working with animals I have seen and done some pretty gross things from being vomited on by vultures to emptying maggot-ridden garbage, but I never thought I would be able to add to the skills on my resume: Skunk proctology!

The end!


Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”

My Life with Animals: A Timber Tale

Most people see me as a pretty confident, self-assured person, but the truth of the matter is that when it comes to raising these wild animals, I am always worried that I am going to mess it all up. When they turn out good, I am sure that it was luck and I had nothing to do with it. Up until this point I had been pretty lucky but I was sure that this time my luck was about to run out. I was failing with this animal and success didn’t look like a probable outcome.

It all started with a big idea that I had. We were looking for something new to add or change in the museum for our members who have been to see us over and over again, so I suggested adding a beaver and some ducks to make the River Tank more authentic. Everyone loved the idea. “What did I just get myself in to?” I thought. It’s not like getting a dog, I couldn’t just go to the pet store or local shelter. This was going to be a challenge. Before then, every animal I had ever acquired was random. I had a list of potential animals we could have, and then waited for one to become available through a wildlife rehabilitator. This time, I had to actively find a baby beaver by the next summer.

After calling many of my contacts, I finally found a zoo in the midwest that had a pair of beavers who bred every year. Not having any way to prevent this, they had to find homes for the kits once born. There are always zoos who want them, so it hadn’t been a problem for them. I called and was told that I was the first on the waiting list for the year, so if they had kits, one was ours. So now all we had to do was wait. On June 23, 2014, she gave birth to three kits! We were so excited to get the youngster, but then we ran into a roadblock. They decided that they would not take the youngster from the group until it was at least 5 weeks old and weaned from the mom. I know that sounds pretty young still, but it was long enough for the kit to bond to the others and not to us, causing the kit to develop fear of humans. We wanted to be able to bottle feed him and wean him ourselves. That is the best, most successful way to bond with the animal. But no matter how many times I asked, they refused.

TimberOn August 12, 2014 I drove to the Sacramento airport to pick up our 7 week old beaver kit. He was adorable. It was really late and being a two hour drive home, we decided to get a hotel. I hadn’t checked to see if this place allowed dogs, but either way I wasn’t about to tell them I had a beaver with me. So, we got our room, parked the car near the side door and then quickly and quietly rushed in with his kennel. Whew, we got through undetected. I don’t know what I would have said had we been caught! We let him out to wander the room as he had been cooped up in that kennel traveling all day. Watching a beaver kit check himself out in the mirror was quite interesting. We then filled the bathtub with some water for him, but he wasn’t very interested in that, he just investigated the whole room. The night was uneventful and in the morning we packed up, snuck him back out to the car and headed back to Redding.

TimberOnce we got him home, the fear started to set in. He didn’t want anything to do with us during the day and would huff at us if we got too close to him. He was still on his nocturnal schedule and just wanted to sleep all day. Trying to wake a sleeping beaver was quite a feat. How were we going to bond to this little guy and teach him that we were not a threat? The only thing we could do: stay up with him when he decided to be up. I set up a cage in my spare bedroom with towels, a small water bowl, lots of sticks and a stuffed animal for him to cuddle up to while he slept. In the backyard, I placed a plastic baby pool with cinderblocks as steps in and out to give him easy access. Beavers need access to water, as they only defecate in water. This meant that at least once, if not twice a day, we had to get him in the pool so he could do his business.

TimberThere were so many challenges that I don’t even know where to start. He was so scared that I didn’t know how I was going to get him into the pool in a positive way and. more importantly, how was I going to get him back out of the water and into the house after.   But surprisingly, once he was at my house, he did better. I was able to pick him up out of his cage and bring him to the pool. As his round pudgy body hit the water, a puff of white was expelled and then what seemed like more feces than any little animal should be able to produce! I had to get him out of that filthy water, but once he was in the water, he didn’t want us anywhere near him. We tried to get our hands on him, but he squirmed, jumped out of the pool and ran across the yard. We went running after him. I swooped him up, Wayne grabbed a towel and we towel dried him as we brought him back into the house. The next time we brought him out to the clean pool, we were ready. Armed with a small fine net, he hit the water, expelled his load of grossness and we scooped it out before it disintegrated into a sea of brown slush! This became our new routine.

Every night, around 9 or 10pm when he woke up, we allowed him to swim (or more often float like a log) in the pool for as long as he wanted. He had learned that he could just walk to the back door, we would open it and he would waddle out to the pool on his own. At times he looked like a furry alligator with only his eyes peering above the waters’ surface. We would sit watching, sometimes for hours. We couldn’t move a muscle or he would spook and slap his tail. This meant it would be at least another hour before he calmed enough to leave the pool. Once done, he would climb out of the pool on the opposite side we were sitting and run across the yard. Like every night before, I would circle in front of him and like a goalie and catch him in my arms before he could hit the fence line. Armed with a towel, I would scoop him up, wrap him in the towel, Wayne would hand him a big piece of his favorite treat–sweet potato–as I carried him back in the house. Then, one day, it all changed. I had the greatest idea: “Let’s sit on the opposite side of the pool, where he always gets out. Maybe he will get out across from us towards the door.” So, Wayne and I sat and waited until about midnight. Then, Timber climbed out of the pool at the cinderblock, and walked right to the sliding glass door and back into the house. He walked down the hallway and put himself away into his cage where fresh towels, his stuffed animal and sticks awaited him!

TimberHe was getting more and more comfortable with us. I would stay up with him after his swims, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning. He would crawl up on me, snuggle in and go to sleep. He investigated the house, chewed the doors of our new home, and played with his stuffed animals and twigs. He was learning cues like “come” and “rise” and understood that “good” meant his favorite treats were coming. He started to allow us to move while he was in the pool and even put our hands in the water with him. I would crawl into his cage with him and we would groom one another. He was making such improvements, but only at my house. Every morning, we would put him in the car and take him back to Turtle Bay. He was not comfortable there at all. He would sleep all day and the little moments he was awake he exhibited nervous behaviors. Although the other trainers could and did, interact with him, he was not making the strides there that we had hoped. It was great that he was comfortable and bonding to me at the house, but if he couldn’t get comfortable with everyone else and at the place he was going to live, what were we going to do? How could we give him the life he deserved? It had been months and we had made little progress.

TimberIt was now November and if we didn’t get him introduced and settled in his new home at the Museum Aquarium soon it would be too cold and he would have to stay with me all winter. As much as I loved the little guy, he was growing quickly and needed more space. His pool was becoming a soak tub as he no longer had room to swim down “deep”. One morning I had a thought, “He is comfortable with us at the house and at the water. He is very uncomfortable in the Animal Care area.” I paused as my brain was churning, “But he isn’t going to be living in the Animal Care area. He is going to be living in the Aquarium!”   It was time to change things up. It was time to bring him to the Aquarium exhibit with the 22,000 gallon pool where he will live. The exhibit wasn’t fully ready for him yet, but it was good enough to start his introduction. Wayne got suited up in his wetsuit, we carried the 23lb beaver up the stairs and into the rocky exhibit.

TimberAs we released him onto the ledge in the shallow area of the pool, Wayne waited in the cold 53 degree water with treats in hand. Timber dipped his head down into water and glided the rest of his body in. He swam deep in the pool and popped back up to Wayne. He swam around Wayne’s feet and up to his shoulders. As much as I hate to be anthropomorphic, I felt like he had to be thinking, “It’s about time you guys got in here with me!” After a little while, we coaxed him out of the water and he went right back into his cage. No fear, no problems. We were finally on the right track!

After a few more of these successful introductions and when the exhibit was complete, it was time for an overnight. There was one big challenge and we had no idea how it was going to go. The new lodge that was built for him only had a tube entrance under the water. Not having been raised with such a different entrance point, Timber didn’t understand how to use it, so once he got into the frigid water, he didn’t know how to get out. We thought that if we locked him into the lodge, he would figure it out since it would be his only option. It was worth a try.

On the evening of November 13, 2014 we set up Timber’s lodge with all the things he was used to having: sticks, a little stump, his stuffed dog and towels that smelled like him and us. We carried his cage up to the Aquarium and across the shallow ledge of water to his lodge. We opened the door and let him out. We closed the back gate door of the lodge and left the area. From inside the Museum, we could see into the lodge and were set up to spend the night with him. We monitored everything he was doing for hours. At about 11pm that night, I called it off. He was not figuring out how to use the tube. He started chewing on the back metal gate door. I couldn’t watch anymore. We went up to the exhibit in the dark, balanced the cage at the back of the lodge and coaxed him back in. As I carried him back into my house and settled him in for the night I could not help but think I had failed.


Over the next few days we continued to work on the exhibit to make it more comfortable for Timber. We added a ramp out the back side of the lodge. We practiced with him in there more: swimming, climbing the ramp in and out, climbing the steep side out of the pool onto the land. It was time to try one more time. We prepared everyone for another overnight. I was going to stay the entire night and the rest of the staff and some volunteers would take shifts to join me. We released him into the lodge once again and left. I made a little camp in the Museum to observe him. As the sun went down, he walked to the back of the lodge and flopped right into the water. He swam and swam for hours. I watched worried. Would he get out on his own? Would he get too cold? Would he be scared? Only time would tell. Then it happened, he went to the backside of the lodge, walked up the ramp and sat on the edge his lodge grooming. After some time, he lay down in the back and went to sleep.

TimberThe next morning, I went up to the exhibit to a sleeping beaver, crawled into the lodge and we groomed for a half an hour. He then crawled out and climbed into my lap. I fed him some of his favorite treats and then packed up my stuff and headed home to bed. The house was quiet. Timber’s cage sat empty with torn up branches scattered about the room. We had done it!

Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”

My Life with Animals: A Whole New World

StiltsThe music starts as I finish his introduction with “Welcome our little misfit.” Running out from around the left side of the stage wing, Stilts appears. The audience reacts with an “aww” at his presence. He darts out enthusiastically, pauses to look out at the crowd with his large eyes and then takes off. His little legs moving fast under him, he approaches a hollowed out log at center stage. He stops, ducks his little fluffy head, and runs into the log. As he appears out the other end, he once again pauses, looks at the audience one last time and sprints as fast as his little legs can take him off the stage, around the corner and into a kennel waiting on the other side. The audience gives a huge round of applause! Although only 4 inches tall and the smallest animal in the show, he is clearly larger than life and an audience favorite.

StiltsIt was 2007, an adorable little burrowing owl sat in the corner of his cage, huddled behind a small stump, peering out as people walked by him. His enclosure was like a cabinet on the wall, about 2’x 3’. I reached in and put a piece of food down for him, but he didn’t move. Sitting frozen in the corner he just continued staring at me. Throughout the day his food sat there, uneaten, as he hid in the corner. After hours all the guests were gone and the building fell quiet; I peered carefully into his cage. He was in his corner, but his food was gone. This went on every day for months.

Allowing him to continue to live his life full of fear was just not an option with me. His quality of life needed to improve and I had the tools to do it: training. I set up one of my new trainers to work with him. She was to sit in front of his enclosure everyday for about five to ten minutes, multiple times and place a small piece of his favorite food on the stump. After a few weeks, he started coming out and taking the food while she sat nearby. Then she started sitting closer. Next she moved with her hand near the stump and so on. Stilts would slowly come out, grab the food from the hand and run back away. As we continued the process, he would come out longer and longer until one day, he was waiting out in the open for her to arrive. No fear, no apprehension, just anticipation of getting his snack. It was so rewarding to watch him come out of his shell and his cute little personality started to show through to us.

StiltsAs the weeks went on his comfort increased with his trainers, but he was still showing fear with the public. I realized that it was time to get him out of the small enclosure, time to give him some room so that he had a choice whether he wanted people close to him or not. We had an old indoor enclosure unit, about 4 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 6 feet tall. We put up the enclosure outside on the deck at the entrance to the public building. That was it, that was the last thing he needed. He thrived. Not only did he not try to stay away from us but he didn’t try to stay away from anyone. Whenever a guest would walk by, instead of trying to hide, he would run to the front and greet them. Children would stop and sit on the ground with him, smiles on their faces. He was so engaging and charismatic people couldn’t get enough of him. As we approached with his meal, he would run with those adorable legs to meet us at the door. It was time to take his training to the next level.

StiltsWe started training him to go into a kennel for transport on his own. Then we would let him run around the building and come when we would tap as a cue. He learned to show off his penchant for small burrows by running through the hollowed out log. He would sit on our hand with comfort and ease. We would take him to educational programs in some of the most chaotic situations, like the mall at Christmas time and to news appearances.

StiltsOne day, a co-worker from another department walked up to me and said, “When did we get that new burrowing owl?” It was music to my ears. “That’s Stilts, the same one we’ve always had,” I replied. “No way,” he said in astonishment. “That scared little bird from inside? I can’t believe it!” We had done it. We had allowed him to have a better life. A life where he was free to be himself and have choices. He was free of the constraints of a life in captivity but now lived a full life in human care.

StiltsYears later the same co-worker told me that was the defining moment for him in understanding what we were doing, in the power of training.

For me, there is nothing more upsetting  than seeing a fearful animal. Constantly I see videos on the internet of scared animals and the comments and emoticons are all of laughter. Many of those videos that are so “cute” and “funny” are actually scared animals–a little understanding of animal behavior can go such a long way. Being able to see things from the animals’ point of view rather than our own can make a huge difference in the animals’ lives. Adding a little positive reinforcement training to this gives them back control of their own lives and a freedom to be themselves. This was never more clear to me than with Stilts.

Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”

Experiences of a Lifetime

Teen Volunteer GloriaBy Gloria Helmbold

An Animal Care Teen Volunteer

“You look like a chimney sweep,” animal trainer Erin commented with a grin. It was true. I was coated from crown to sole with a titanium powder that looked remarkably similar to soot. Later that day, twigs and leaves, adhered by super sticky spider webbing, would dangle from my soaked shirt and shorts. Even under all this grime, I am ecstatically happy. Why? We’ll get there.

Gloria in the Animal Show
Gloria in the Animal Show

I am an Animal Care Volunteer at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. My main job consists of cleaning up after the animals and educating the public about them. Put that way, it sounds gross and maybe boring. Why do I love it at Turtle Bay? Because they are one of the only facilities that allows teens to regularly come into direct contact with the animals. Sure, I’m cleaning enclosures, but the animals are still inside. While cleaning, I have been less than three feet from an awe-inspiring golden eagle, a burrowing owl and a very friendly skunk. I have handled smooth snakes, flown a barn owl during a real animal show, stroked a badger, hugged a beaver and assisted in the creation of new enclosures.

On the other side of the scale, cleaning exhibits can be rather disgusting. Let’s just say you don’t want to get a whiff of skunk feces or vulture casts. I have prepared animal diets. This task includes the dissection of whole mice and chunks of beef heart. Also, when a fastidious raptor leaves rat skins and mice skulls overnight, guess who gets to pick them up? Often dishes will reek of warm blood and guts. Sometimes food (that must be removed by yours truly) gets overrun by ants, or worse, meat bees. Still, all these trials are minor inconveniences in comparison to the wonderful opportunity to interact with the animals at Turtle Bay. I work hard and get dirty, but the rewards are experiences of a lifetime.

Gloria and Cricket
Gloria and Cricket

Remember that day I described? The day I became a “chim-chiminey” sweep? One of my most cherished memories was formed that day. It began like any other Turtle Bay morning–no dark and stormy nights. My brother, Geoffrey, and I arrived at eight o’clock and, after putting away yesterday’s dishes, we walked down to Wildlife Woods to begin the daily cleansing of exhibits. I started on Buzz, a turkey vulture whom we laughingly dub “The Chicken Vulture,” for her inveterate habit of fright. “Oh gross,” I thought as I pulled down feathers, soaked with mouse guts from yesterday’s dinner, out of her mat. Slowly, but moving purposely, I sifted the sand covering her floor. When going over or under her perches I pantomimed scrubbing them so Buzz wouldn’t think I was observing her every move. Later I brought vinegar and a brush in and actually cleaned them, the brush spraying me with tainted chemical. Suddenly, Buzz jumped from her high branch to her platform. I held my breath because her mighty wings would stir up all the tiny feathers and minuscule debris remaining in the enclosure. Sure enough, a powerful breeze reached me, actually blowing my hair about. Finally finished, I backed out of the mew just as Buzz bounded back to her original spot. I dumped my full sifter into the waiting five gallon bucket and headed to the burrowing owl. Swivel is one of most wonderful creatures at Turtle Bay. He is a nine and a half inch fluff-ball with eyes as big as a child’s at Christmas. As I struggle to open the stiff, rattly doors leading to his exhibit he calmly observes me. Compared to Buzz he is a breeze to clean. Once everything is nearly completed he hops down on his stump, less than a foot away. He stares at me then bounces to the floor. As I stand up to leave, he stays. He stays while I attempt to open the door single-handed, a very noisy endeavor and one I failed. He stays while I bend down, even closer to him, to set my tools down. He stays while I eventually win my war with the door and exit. Thanks, Swivel. Next, and last on my list (because, with five volunteers cleaning goes quickly) is another owl. The barn owl screeches as I hike up to his mew. Before being allowed to clean an enclosure by ourselves, the animal trainers teach us about that animal’s peculiarities. Cricket’s is quite curious. He toe-dusts: a motion where he spreads his wings and sticks his head down, a sign of an upset barn owl. However, with this particular bird toe-dusting is a pretend. Our mixed up owl was raised among both humans and owls. He learned the behavior of toe-dusting but not when to use it. With me, he usually bluffs for a minute or two then goes back to sleep. The last thing I do for Cricket is scrub and sift underneath his shelter, and him. While I half-shuffle, half-crawl the last three paces, I hold one hand high above my head in a singularly awkward position. The barn owl is two feet above me. Swiftly finishing, I scoot backwards then stand up and exit from the enclosure. Cleaning complete, with feathers clinging everywhere, dirtied knees and vinegar spotting us, we volunteers respectively walk, skip and run back to the Animal Care kitchen.

Animal Care Superstars
Animal Care Superstars

The next duty is preparing for the twice-daily animal show. The sound system must be turned on, mics checked, stage swept, ice brought, props prepared, animals kenneled, and chant recited. With the audience filing in and “Trashin’ the Camp” blaring from our loud speakers, we joked around, joining the song on the “whoos.” The staff arrived also “whoo whoo-ing.” They took one look around and decided that an animal show didn’t require nine people to run smoothly. Geoffrey, Adrienne, and I were dispatched to work on the new exhibits. Comprised of four huge logs set into a cement square and panels of reinforced steel netting, they’re quite a job to construct. Adrienne, an experienced staff member, set up her ladder and went to work by herself, instructing Geoffrey and me to work together. I scurried up a tall ladder inside the evolving exhibit and Geoffrey did the same on the outside. My job was to stretch the surprisingly stiff mesh to the edge, where Geoffrey would then Zip-tie it to a cable, thereby securing the ceiling until it could be wired to the cable. Throwing all my weight on the herculean mesh, I drew it across the gap. My fingers, intertwined in the holes, were already losing circulation. “Hurry,” I gasped to Geoffrey who was pulling on his side and also attempting to thread a belligerent Zip-tie through the cable and the mesh. “I’m trying,” he muttered, all his attention on the infuriating Zip-tie. By the end of an hour, our hands were striped with black titanium powder from the wire and our arms feel ready to drop out of their sockets. Erin joined us and commented in surprise, “Wow Gloria, you look like a… chimney sweep!” She was entirely correct. My arms were covered in a diamond pattern derived from the mesh weave. My face was smudged all over, additional dust added where I’d brushed hair out of my eyes, or where the extra mesh had tumbled down on top of me. My new khaki shorts were khaki no more. I was filthy. I couldn’t wait to build exhibits again.

Gloria and Timber
Gloria and Timber

Adrienne sent Geoffrey and me into the kitchen to clean up as best we could, requesting us to join her at the museum when presentable. After I blackened several paper towels and a washcloth, Geoffrey and I speed-walked along the sweltering trail to the museum. Taking the steep stairs two at a time in an effort to mimic my brother’s stride, I slipped through the gate into the beaver’s exhibit. Timber’s home is built on a hill with a giant swimming hole that looks into the museum. He shares with fish. Lots of fish. As soon as Adrienne realizes we’re there, she starts Geoffrey demolishing Orb Weaver webs, and sends me inside for a cloth. When I finally locate a yellow micro-fiber rag in the lab, I hurry back out. Adrienne explains why it’s needed, “The glass inside Timber’s den is difficult to see through.” She continues, “Would you mind going in and wiping it clean?” Of course, I agreed. Carefully, lest I slip and swim with the fishes, I navigated the stepping stones. Reaching the entrance to the den I crouched down and peered into its depths. Various sized sticks completely covered the floor. On top of the branches lay a generous amount of straw. On the two foot high ceiling hung twenty to thirty daddy long legs spiders. Now balancing on a small bridge, I eased my upper body inside. Crawling on my elbows and toes and grasping my dust cloth, I reached the glass. For a moment, I paused enjoying the topsy turvy view of the museum. Several guests waved. Lying on my stomach I scrubbed at the dusty glass. Finally, I felt it was as good as it was going to get and I awkwardly backed out, glancing into the aquarium below. I emerged dusty, disheveled, daubed with dirt but triumphant. Straw clung to my front and spider webs dangled off my back. Geoffrey laughed. I laughed. Timber laughed. Okay, maybe not, but still… Suddenly Adrienne handed me some of Timber’s diet. “If you hold it to one side, he will climb in your lap.” Guess what I immediately did? Clumsily, the beaver climbed onto me. He was soaking wet, but I didn’t care. “You can touch him,” Adrienne told me. I stroked his unbelievably soft, nut brown fur. A grin spread across my face as Timber stayed with me without food. I felt his flat tail, marveling at the weird sensation my fingers encountered. Once he climbed down again, Adrienne gave us the remainder of his food. I called him onto me again. I neglected to make sure I was stable and Timber almost toppled me over. While Geoffrey kept Timber’s attention, I clambered to my feet. I was now as wet as Timber himself. Eager for more food, Mr. Beaver stood on his hind feet, supporting himself on us. He scrabbled with gentle paws on our legs to remind us that we held the food. His feet were smooth, like wet earth. Unfortunately, we eventually delivered all his diet to him, saving only one piece to place in his den while we left. I beamed all the way back to the Animal Care kitchen.

Clearly, this day deserves its spot in my memories. That day I hung out with a beaver, I discovered my unlimited capacity for grime, and I helped create new homes for the animals. This wild experience of volunteering at Turtle Bay will remain treasured far beyond my Teen Volunteer years.

My Life With Animals: A Sweet Affair

As we drove home with our newest ball of fur curled up in my lap, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear.  We had waited a long time for her–six years to be exact!  Who would have thought getting such a common animal for education would be so difficult.

Sweet PeaWe had come close once before. A call came through from Guest Services, “There is a problem.  There is this skunk down at Raptor Hollow that is approaching all the guests.” As we knew, a skunk out in the middle of the day walking up to people is a bit odd. We quickly headed down to Raptor Hollow, an area in our park where we housed our birds of prey along with a few other animals. There, wandering around was a cute, little skunk, probably less than two months old. Guests were just standing around watching her as she stumbled over their feet. She appeared to be injured and was not using her back legs well. Adrienne, one of the Animal Care staff, grabbed a kennel and placed it near the kit and without any hesitation, the little dazed skunk walked into the kennel.   

Sweet PeaWhat were we going to do with this baby skunk? The wildlife rehabilitator who we normally call would not take skunks, the vets didn’t want to touch her, and everyone is so scared of rabies that this little girl didn’t have a chance. That was the main reason we had not yet been able to get one: California Fish and Wildlife regulations state that we can only acquire a skunk from within California, so we couldn’t get a skunk born in, say, Washington or Oregon. Since breeding and keeping skunks in California is illegal (rightly so), we could only get one from rehab. However, most wildlife rehabbers in California do not take skunks.

Finally after much searching, we found one wonderful wildlife rehabilitator who loves to help skunks. Recognizing that these beautiful animals are misunderstood and have such a valuable purpose in the world, she has made it her life’s work to bring about appreciation for them and give them a second chance. A few hours later, the rehabber arrived. Showing absolutely no fear of being sprayed, she carefully took the skunk out of the kennel to examine her. I knew that skunks didn’t spray indiscriminately, but being grabbed out of a kennel by a stranger? That was crazy. She took the time to teach us about handling skunks safely and how to avoid getting sprayed. She let us touch the tiny skunk on its back. We were all instantly in love with this little creature.

Sweet PeaWe talked with the rehabber about getting a skunk for education someday. She explained that skunks are very hardy and that most of the time they heal up well and can be released, the ones that do not heal, usually don’t survive. “It is rare,” she told us, “to have one survive, but have something wrong with it to deem it non-releasable.”  She continued, “If I ever have one who is healthy but non-releasable, I will call you.  I think this would be a great place for an educational skunk.” We couldn’t have agreed more! I had been trying to find one for over five years without any success. 

A year later the phone rang; it was the rehabber. “I think I have a skunk for you. Do you still want one?” “Of course!” I responded with excitement. “This one should be perfect for you. She has a neurological problem that has given her balance issues. She is doing great and is about six weeks old.” She was still on a bottle and the rehabber agreed to keep her on it so we could wean her ourselves. That would help with the relationship and creating a long lasting, forever bond with her. I immediately got the paperwork together for permits and sent them off.

Sweet PeaIn the meantime, I headed over to the rehabber’s to meet this skunk kit in person. There she was in a little cage, curled up with another kit even smaller than she. I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. I couldn’t even believe how beautiful she was: her fur was soft and  silky, her black and white stripes just perfect, her tail was already fluffy. I couldn’t wait to bring her home, but at that point it was a waiting game. 

Two weeks later I got word from California Fish and Wildlife that we had permission and a permit to get the skunk kit. As we drove home with this black and white fluffball, my heart filled with joy. After six years of searching and waiting, our adventures were about to begin and Sweet Pea was now a part of our lives. 

Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”