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”

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”

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”

My Life with Animals: Auric Gets a New Home

We hear a lot about learned helplessness in our industry. According to the Encyclopedia of Britannica, learned helplessness is, “a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.”

In other words, an animal tolerates or submits to a negative, even abusive situation because they have learned there is nothing they can do about it. We are cautioned to eliminate this, to make sure our animals always have a choice to participate or not. No matter what, keep it positive! Sometimes we were given examples of what appeared to be the most subtle things that were labeled learned helplessness. Being so conscientious of the animals in my care, I often feared that I could be creating this without realizing it.

AuricIt wasn’t until I met Auric, the Golden eagle, that I really understood learned helplessness. I had been working with him for only a week or two when he needed to be caught up and restrained to be brought to the vet for an exam. He was not trained to kennel on his own so I had to go in and restrain him and put him in the kennel. As I walked into his exhibit and approached him he jumped to a different perch–a normal reaction for a bird with a stranger approaching. I turned towards that perch and he sat looking at me. One small step after another, I closed the distance between us. I reached out to grab a hold of his legs. Just as my hand touched his legs, he went limp and dropped into my arms. He did not fight, he did not struggle. I had never seen a bird respond with such a severe case of learned helplessness; a tear ran down my face.

After his vet visit, I changed all the protocols for how we were to handle animals. We were only going to use positive reinforcement techniques. In this form of training, the animals get a choice to participate or not. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. We started implementing this immediately with all the birds and within a few months we started to see a huge difference. Auric started coming to us when we would walk in and would even hop to our glove. We worked with him more and more to increase his comfort and gain his trust. We trained him to step onto a scale so that we could get weekly or even daily weights on him. He would take food from our hands.

AuricOne day while working with Auric sitting calmly on the glove, I was hand-feeding him tidbits of quail. As I went to hand him a piece, it stuck to my fingers and fell to the ground just as he went to take it. Apologizing to him, I quickly tried to hand him another piece. But for some reason I dropped it too. “Third time’s the charm,” I thought as I grabbed one more piece of food. I do not know what was wrong with me that day, but I was clearly being a klutz and as Auric went to take this last attempt, the piece of food slipped from my hand and fell to the sandy floor. Auric turned his head and looked at me, his hackles quickly raised on the back of his head. Before I could react, his right foot lifted from the glove and firmly planted itself, talons and all into my upper arm! OUCH! He quickly let go, but he let me know loudly and clearly that this “teasing” him with the treats was totally unacceptable. As the blood dripped down my arm, I turned to the other trainer, “Did you see that? He acted like a normal Golden eagle!” With excitement in my voice, “I have never been so happy to be footed in my life!” As he felt confident enough to let me know he was not pleased, we understood the breakthrough we had just experienced.

Auric continued to progress nicely, but there were a few things preventing us from moving forward: Auric was afraid of his jesses–the straps on his legs–being touched, and he was living in an exhibit that was fairly small and located right next to a busy playground and bathrooms. Every time the bathroom door would slam closed he would fly into the wall in a panic. Every time a child would clank the pump at the water wheel he would jump. We were gaining trust and making progress, but in order to really free him up and have him comfortable, we were going to need to change his environment.

AuricAfter a few years of working on it, we were finally able to build Auric a new exhibit. It was the first of many to come. The exhibit was to sit out in the Interpretive Forest. An area that was quite secluded within our Park, with tall Cottonwood trees towering overhead. Six utility posts attached with cabling and stainless steel, hand woven mesh creating the walls. A few small trees placed inside the exhibit, a “Y” branch created a natural perch for him along with a stunning old stump with a 3 foot diameter. Fluffy grasses scattered throughout and lining the front of the exhibit created the finishing touches. It was perfect!

AuricSpring of 2012 brought about the most amazing day. The exhibit was complete and it was move-in day. We had no idea what was going to happen. Would he settle onto one of his new branches calmly or would he flail around in fear and possibly hurt himself? Both were equally plausible. We carried him over to the new exhibit in a kennel and placed it in the exhibit. A small crowd of staff and volunteers stood nearby watching in support. We opened the door, he took a step out of the kennel, his wings opened and he flew right up onto the “Y” perch!! It was perfect, amazing, touching. I can’t even find the words to describe. My fellow trainer and I turned to one another and both of us started to cry.

Auric was with us for another year and a half in his new home. Although we never got him out for educational shows, we knew that we had made his life better and he lived out that last year in peace and comfort. Auric will always live on at Turtle bay through his legacy, Wildlife Woods, which never would have existed without the efforts to better his life.

Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”

My Life with Animals: Owl Overnight

1It had been a great weekend. My husband and I had just arrived home from seeing the Eagles in concert in Tahoe. The Eagles are my husband’s favorite band and he had never seen them live.   Even though I had to be up since 3am to go do our monthly news spot that same day, this may have been the last opportunity to see them so we went. We left right from the news to drive to Tahoe for the concert that night, saw the awesome show that evening and the next day drove back to Redding. I had just sat down on the couch with my cats to relax after the whirlwind weekend when the phone rang. It was one of my trainers, “Cricket is in a tree.”

2Earlier that evening, two of the trainers were doing an outdoor, evening show at the Antler’s Campground, about a half an hour North of Turtle Bay. We had done shows there many times and Cricket, the barn owl, would fly at each one. This time, however, he decided to fly past the trainer and up into a tree. Flying off into a tree isn’t totally unusual for him and he always comes down fairly quickly, but it had been a half hour and, being away from home base, they thought they should let me know. “Do you think you are good or do you need backup?” I asked. The trainer replied, “I think we are okay for now, it is still light out and he isn’t very far up in this tree. We will call you back if we need anything or he comes down.” We hung up the phone and I sat back down onto the couch. That didn’t last long. Within fifteen minutes the phone rang again, “He moved to another tree and is higher up now. The sun is going down and we are starting to have trouble seeing him. I think we could use your help.” We jumped up, grabbed our stuff and headed out the door. Before we could go to the campsite, we made a quick stop at work to pick up supplies, like gloves, a creance line, mice and rats.

When we arrived, there he was, high up in a pine tree. It was dusk and all we could see was his silhouette. The sun was going down quickly and he had absolutely no interest in coming down. We knew it was going to be a long night, but we were not quite prepared for how long.

3As the sun disappeared below the horizon and darkness settled over us, we knew we were in trouble. Antler’s Campground sits on a cliffside overlooking Shasta Lake. If he started flying around, we wouldn’t be able to see him and navigating the area safely was going to be a challenge. No longer able to see him, we would periodically shine a flashlight towards him to make sure he was still there. Over and over we checked and there he sat, high up in the tree. We knew we had to make a plan for the night. It was only a matter of time before he would start flying around as he was an owl, after all, and he was going to get active at any moment. There were five of us there: my husband Wayne, Adrienne, her husband Kevin, Ashley, and me. We were going to need to make shifts as it could be a long night and, at that time, we still had the baby beaver and bobcat kitten at home needing to be taken care of too. So we called Lindsay for the night shift, sent Ashley home for sleep, sent Kevin home to take care of the bobcat kitten and put out calls to some of our volunteers. Now that we were confident that everything was covered, it was time to sit, watch, follow, and wait.


We stood in a circle with the tree in the middle waiting for him to fly. Every time we shined that light up at the tree, there he sat, motionless until 9:30pm. That’s when it happened, “Where is he?” one of us called out. “I don’t know,” said another. “Can you see him?” “No, I can’t!” “Did anyone see him fly?” Well, that answer was obvious, we had not. Luckily, we always free fly Cricket with a telemetry transmitter attached to his ankle so that we can track him should we ever find ourselves in this very situation. We don’t know how long he had been gone, but not only did we not see him in the darkness, we could not hear him either. The silent flight of the owl is no myth and we were experiencing it firsthand. We turned on the receiver and started to follow the beeps. “Be careful, the cliff is on that side of us,” one trainer points to our right side. “How far away?” I asked with great concern. “Not very.” So we continued carefully and followed the beeps right to him. He was sitting up in another tree as comfy as could be. This pattern continued throughout the night. We would create a circle perimeter, shine the light periodically until he was gone and then follow the beeps to him. Following the beeps in the dark was quite an adventure with the cliffside nearby, rattlesnakes active in the tall grasses and tents scattered about. We had gotten so turned around wandering in the dark that we had no idea where we were anymore. At one point, I ran right into a tent. It was about 2am and I was sure I was going to get shot! “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, we are just looking for our owl!” How many people can say they heard that while they were camping?

5At about 3am, it was time for a few people to get some sleep, so Adrienne and Wayne went to their perspective cars to get some shut eye while four of us remained traipsing through the campground. Time seemed to move very slowly as the night went on. The darkness had an eerie silence to it and we were very disoriented. Around 5:30am, we heard a sound in the distance. It was quite unmistakable as it made its way closer and closer, louder and louder. A train was approaching and Cricket was listening too, but he had never heard one before. As the grumbling sound approached with the squealing of the metal on the tracks, Cricket took off in a startling flight. We had done this all night long, so it was time once again to break out the receiver and start the hunt. As the beeps got stronger and we got closer, we looked around but could not find him. We continued to look, but nothing. “He has to be right here,” I said to the others. “The signal is strong here.” But the trees were quite tall and leaves were full and we just couldn’t find him. For over thirty minutes we searched. I held the receiver and circled the tree. There was a strong signal all the way around. I lifted the receiver high in the air towards the top of the tree and then made my way all the way down to the ground. The beeping was louder the lower I went.The most sickened feeling I have ever felt came over me at that moment. I looked at the ground and there was his telemetry transmitter laying on the ground under the tree. In his abrupt take-off, the transmitter had fallen off. Cricket was gone and there was no way for us to find him.

9We needed more eyes. We woke up Adrienne and Wayne and all six of us started searching. At least the sun was coming up so we could see a little now. We searched and searched for hours to no avail. Around 8:30am I made a call to Turtle Bay’s Guest Experience Officer, Carrian, to gather up as many people as possible to help search for him. One thing you can always count on is Carrian’s organizing the troops in a moment of crisis. She was on it. Around 11am people would start showing up to help. In the meantime, we continued to look at every single tree. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. At one point, the camp host came out to help and said they thought they had seen him. With great excitement we went to see, but it was a turkey vulture. I was exhausted and the hopelessness was beginning to set in but we had to keep looking.

10At about 9am, one of the campers came over, “Your owl is in a tree right over here.” “Where?” we said reluctantly. “He was in a tree right above our campsite.” Of course we were skeptical and I didn’t want to waste time on another false lead, but I sent Wayne over just in case. Shocking as it was, the man was right! “It’s him, right over here,” Wayne yelled to us. Still in disbelief, we all went running over, but before we could get there, he took off flying. “Keep your eye on him,” we yelled. Thankfully, he didn’t go far and settled in a tree 15 feet up. As our backup started to arrive, we created a large perimeter and gave instructions as to what to do. Essentially, keep your eyes to the sky in case he flies, yell so everyone knows he is going and do not lose sight of him. When I say we are supported at Turtle Bay, I really mean it. It wasn’t just animal care and volunteers who came to help. No, we had Creative Services, Guest Services, Development and even our Finance Department there helping. We sent Adrienne, Lindsay and Wayne home to sleep. Carrian set up shifts so that we would have people all day and night. She brought coolers of food, water, and snacks. She brought phone charging cables, radios, flashlights, and blankets. We pretty much set up camp and had our very own Turtle Staff Campout under a little tree watching an owl! And that’s what we did, hung out and watched Cricket who ever so thoughtfully went to sleep.

8I knew we were in for the day. After all, he had been flying around all night and it was time for some rest. “He will most likely be asleep until dusk. As soon as the sun starts to go down, he will get active and I bet he will finally be hungry enough to come down.” I rolled out a yoga mat that somebody brought, laid down under the tree, and drifted off to sleep. Every once in a while I would awaken when I heard the murmurs that he opened his eyes. I’d get up, swing a mouse around a little to see if he was at all interested, be ignored, and go back to rest. I “slept” like that for an hour or two and then I was back up for the duration. Then, at 7pm, almost exactly 24 hours from when he flew off, Cricket woke up. He started looking around and I knew he must be hungry. We started calling him with the glove and a mouse. He looked around and stretched, “ He is going to fly,” I called out. Sure enough, he tucked his wings and took off right towards me but flew passed me, circled around and landed in another tree. “He is trying to come down, but it’s too steep,” I advised. So I stood back a little distance, held my glove up and he took off flying towards me again, but it was still too steep. Standing about 25 yards back to my left, stood Lindsay. As he passed me, he descended more and more as he got closer until his legs stretched out as he flared his wings back and landed right on Lindsay’s glove! We all gave a huge sigh of relief. We knew that there was no way to follow him at night without the telemetry and were thankful that it was over now, with him back safe and secure.

6As he sat shaking on Lindsay’s glove unwilling to eat the whole mouse offered it was apparent the last 24 hours was as hard on him as it was on us.

Over the years I have managed quite a few fly offs, but none were quite like this: in a campground, at night, at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a lake. Never had I experienced the level of support from co-workers who came out in droves to help. This is one recovery we will never forget.


Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin”