Notes From the Zookeeper: Help!

Dear Mom,

I want to go home. I’m currently seven hours south of the ole homestead at the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in South Carolina. I get to spend the next three days learning all about countless species from experts the world over. Turtles? Yes. Studying up on them? Absolutely! School’s my jam! At a conference where I do not know a soul?  (insert needle-scratch) Ummm. People? I don’t do the whole human thing very well. I am shy, a little weird, and I have the social skilz of an octopus, minus the tentacles. Did I have tentacles when I was born, Mom?

This is me. Trying to blend in, or maybe just outright hide. My Patronus is an octopus.

I stepped out of the car into a city that smells of an odd mix of excrement and brackish water, and I was ready to turn around and go home. The brackish water I get. I’m right here on the coast. But poop? Why? Why the poop? I do not understand! I’m in the heart of the historical district. Is it historical poop? Maybe?

The hotel is a shack. Three room suites, valet parking, a mezzanine, thick walls where I can’t hear the neighbors scratching their bed bugs, maybe not even bed bugs. A shack. I will suffer through. But one of the bars of soap was already wet when I opened it, and that creeps me out more than a little. And everything from the soap to the lotion smells exactly the same.

Our opening event was at the South Carolina Aquarium. I had never been. It was all kinds of amazing. Let me show you.

There’s, like, this whole ocean and stuff!

I did make two friends right off the bat, Mom. Want to meet them?

And there were other cool things.

I found a drug store on my way back to the hotel, and I thought I should get some snacks because food is WAY too expensive here. $12 for hotel breakfast is way more than I want to spend. But I am a jinx, and as I was buying my stuff, the entire computer system shut down, and I had to stand at the register making awkward small talk with the cashier and manager for ten minutes. Ten long, painful, awful minutes.  Come and get me.

The TV is broken. At least the one in my bedroom is, and I don’t want to go to the living room. That’s too much trouble. I mean, the TV comes on, but it only gets crappy channels. There were these two pink people who were walking through the jungle. Did I mention they were nekkid? Why were they nekkid? I go hiking all the time, but always with my clothes on. Don’t these people know there are insects and other things you don’t want close to the tender parts? Am I missing something?

The alarm went off, and I’m still typing my letter. But I will get out of bed. I will. Eventually. I can do this, Mom. I can learn good stuff and make new friends and eat all my snacks so I’m not spending a billion dollars on breakfasts. I can do this. I can.

On second thought… there are two beds here. I should go try out the other one.

 

 

 

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Notes From the Zookeeper: I Really Did It!

I went to Amphibian Management School back in February. Yes, that’s really a thing. Frog populations have declined rapidly over the last several years due to a number of factors – habitat destruction, globalization, climate change, pollution, etc. In the US alone, populations are declining at a rate of 3.7% per year, so an annual training class to help zookeepers care for these animals is very necessary. One day I’ll get my act together and share some cool things I did and learned, but today isn’t that day. Today is about sharing one thing.

Our curator told me that we’re acquiring some Tiger-legged Monkey Frogs (Phyllomedusa hypochondrialis).  I have never worked with this species before, but I am pretty stoked. Why wouldn’t I be?

Check this out! Who wouldn’t want a frog who can do this?

 

We aim for mixed-species exhibits wherever possible because animals in captivity often do better if we can mimic their eco-system. Imagine being alone in the world – no birds, no insect sounds, no fragrance of flowers or trees. Boring and stressful, right? I even introduced some isopods (pillbugs) and native plants into a milk snake enclosure, and he has been more visible and less jumpy.

We just happen to have a snake that cohabits the tree frog’s ecosystem, so it was my job to create an exhibit that could house both while being visually appealing. Thank you, Amphibian Management School! I got this!

So the exhibit itself isn’t the most attractive, but I can work with it.

Step 1

We need a good base. The exhibit needs to be heavily planted. Here’s the dilemma. The frogs need to be sprayed heavily every day, and plants like water, but not TOO much water, or their roots will rot. The solution? A false bottom. The frogs get their spraying, and the extra water has a place to go.

Take a piece of plastic egg crate (it’s really plastic mesh) and cut it to the size and general shape of the enclosure. Then take some pieces of PVC pipe. Their length doesn’t matter at all, just their diameter. The job of the pvc is to hold the mesh off the bottom. Don’t stand the PVS straight up, or they will get clogged with dirty water that you can’t get out.

My PVC was fairly narrow in diameter. I also didn’t have egg crate, so I used a rigid mesh.

Step 2 

The water under the exhibit will eventually build up and soak the substrate unless you have a way to get rid of it. Solution? A stand pipe. I can run a piece of flexible tubing down into the stand pile and drain out the extra water.

Ta-da! Even I, the mechanically disinclined, can make a dream come true!

Step 3

Cover the egg crate or mesh with wire screen. This step keeps your substrate (dirt) from dropping straight through the mesh. It’s very inexpensive. Also, this is the step I forgot to take a photo of. Secure the mesh to the screen with zip ties for added peace of mind. I zip-tied mine every which way from Sunday, just to be on the safe side!

Step 4

Add your substrate. Frogs breathe through their skin (some species don’t even develop lungs at all), so any toxin in the environment goes straight into them. So get the organic stuff. There’s a mix called ABG, after Atlanta Botanical Garden, after the facility that perfected it. People have tweaked it to their own needs. I was limited to the items on hand, so I used equal parts milled sphagnum, crushed peat, and long-fiber moss. Most people also add charcoal (like, a bag of Cowboy charcoal you get at Lowe’s – simply crush with a hammer), but I didn’t have any. I dumped everything into a trash can I use for feeding snakes and wetted it down thoroughly. WEAR A MASK. This stuff is dusty, and you’ll be sneezing brown for days. Don’t ask how I know.

Worst photo in the world, but you get the idea.

Step 5

Now’s the fun part. Add some branches for the arboreal snake. He is one that never comes down to the ground, so the more options you can give him for hanging, the better off he will be. Let him choose if he wants to be higher, lower, covered in plant leaves, etc.

Step 6

Add the plants. This is my favorite part. I LOVE plants almost as much as I love my animals. I made a trip to Stanley’s Greenhouse to find some lovelies to put in my exhibit. I used a Bird’s Nest fern, a hybrid fern, many varieties of Elephant Ear, a tiny little Philodendron,  Lady’s Slipper, and some vining plants. Go pesticide-free for frogs.

Ta-DA! Note the stand-pipe is concealed by the fern. If the frogs are small, I’ll use PVC cutters to shorten the pipe and cover it with a rock so no one accidentally falls through!

I am very pleased with it. Time will tell if the Emerald Tree Boa will beat anything up. What does he think of the set-up?

Confused. So many choices, so many branches to climb!

If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to ask. If I can do it, seriously, anyone can! What have you done that you didn’t think you could do?

The Introverted Activist: Back In the Game

I dropped out of the political scene a bit ago.  I went to Detroit for a week in February for Amphibian Management School. After a whole week of being off social media and news, it was way too hard to pick it back up again. I have tried. I have dipped my toe in the water once or twice. But then I became so depressed that I could barely get out of bed, and it just didn’t seem worth it. That’s the definition of White Privilege, isn’t it? Being able to turn it off for a while? But I’m back.  I can’t afford not to be anymore.

To be quite frank, the Senate’s version of the healthcare reform bill is terrifying. And evil. Gutting Medicaid? 40% of kids with disabilities are on Medicaid. Essential Health Benefits removed? So prenatal care is no longer considered a basic human right. While we’re at it, why not cut more from Planned Parenthood? So more women will be getting pregnant, having to stay pregnant, but not receiving the care they need to ensure a healthy baby? This is ridiculous.

Apply head to desk. Repeat.

And then there’s me. I am a walking pre-existing condition. I have asthma, but I also have a chronic, hereditary liver condition that can (unpredictably) affect pretty much any system in my body. So I get shoved into a high-risk pool because of my genetics, even though I take good care of myself and have only been hospitalized once. I’ll pay more for insurance. Because let’s face it, no insurance company is going to provide benefits at lower costs than they have to just out of the goodness of their hearts. And if I do begin to have more issues, I could be capped a million dollars over my lifetime.  Anybody know how quickly you can hit a million dollars in health costs? Imagine having an expensive disability. Once you hit the cap, it’s all out of pocket. People will have to decide whether to eat or get health care, and that’s not one tiny bit hyperbole.

 

What I did this week:

  • Signed the online petition asking Angela Merkel to lead the other 19 countries in committing to a cleaner planet at G20. I’m not a big believer in petitions here in the US because too often they aren’t designed to lead to action. But this one allows me to put some hope in someone who can DO something.  It took under a minute, and it’s terribly encouraging to see the numbers of signers going up in real time.

 

  • I called my Senators. A bunch of times. I left messages because I can’t get through to real people normally, which is fine. When I’ve gotten hold of my Republican Sentators’ Republican staffers, they sound bored. But the message on the machine is upbeat. This week, my theme has been the health care bill. First, I asked that they say a big, fat NO. Then I asked that they push the vote until AFTER the recess to give more people time to read what’s IN it. Seriously. Spinning it behind closed doors like some twisted Rumpelstiltskin, holding the BIG REVEAL on Thursday, then trying to railroad it through a vote in under a week? Nuh-uh. Want to call your Senators? Find them here.

 

  • Then I called the Senate Finance Office at 202-224-4515. They are tallying calls on people asking for a PUBLIC forum on the health care bill.  At least if they hold public forums and still screw us over, it will be obvious that they were planning to railroad us all along. The harder they make denial for some of our citizens, the better off we will all be. 25% of Americans have no idea what’s in the health bill currently.

 

What did you do this week? Shout it out in the comments, even if it was “I took care of myself and stayed away from politics.” Because we all have permission to rest and recover. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Or maybe not marathon. Cage-match, perhaps?

Notes From the Zookeeper: Another Day, Another Lizard

Yesterday was our third day of volunteering at the Turtle Survival Center is South Carolina. We made mud pies and played in the water. Technically, we made hide boxes out of concrete and built recirculating water systems for turtles. Potato, po-tah-to.

My co-worker is chomping at the bit to get over to the center this morning, so you get a truncated view of yesterday’s fun times.

As promised. Cappuccino the water buffalo, aka “Cappy.”

 

Today we go home. I’m going to miss this place. I wonder if Cappy would fit in a Nissan Juke…

Notes From the Zookeeper: I’m Surrounded By Turtles!

It’s day two at the Turtle Survival Center. I may never leave. Yesterday we scrubbed 40 turtle enclosures and did water changes, and I fell in love with a water buffalo named Cappuccino. Today, we prepared all the food for both veggie eaters and carnivores for some of the most endangered turtles in the world. I didn’t include any pics of the meat-based diet. Let’s just say I cleaned some blood off the walls when we were done and leave it at that.

This is a Leucocephalon yuwonoi, a name that is really fun to say! The boys have bright white heads. They have the best feet!

I have better pictures of the animals, but we have to wait until I am home because I am on my computer that has the screen that is pixelated and pink. You get my phone pictures. I put them in gallery form to make for easier viewing. Click to enlarge and read the caption.

I’ll try to have photos of the water buffalo tomorrow. What’s new in your world?

Notes From the Zookeeper: ROAD TRIP!

As you can perhaps tell from the title, I’m on the road. The boss, in his infinite graciousness (or in his desperation to get rid of me for a few days) budgeted to send me and a co-worker on a learning expedition.  He gets to go to France and Madagascar and New Mexico. I get to go to Detroit in February and South Carolina in June. He might be trying to get rid of me for MORE than a few days. All he has to do is make it look like an accident, you know.

But I could not be happier. In February, I attended Amphibian Management School in Detroit, which was an incredible experience. And now, I am deep in the wilds of South Carolina, no cell phone reception and mosquitoes the size of small dogs. And I am happy. I’m at the Turtle Survival Center. I know. Pinch me. I can’t believe I’m really here.

We arrived last night (thank you, MapQuest, giant raspberry to Google Maps) in the middle of nowhere. A middle of nowhere that boasts 1,000 cornfields, a car show (sorry for almost greasing you, kid on the motorbike with no lights at dusk. But we both know it was your fault.) and enough Dollar Generals to keep Ravenclaw in Mousies for the rest of her life.

This cat is so addicted to her mousie that the person who gifted her the first two went out and bought her eight more!

The nearest real grocery store is an hour away, but the most endangered tortoises and turtles in the world are right outside my door.

We’re here to volunteer. We brings some knowledge to the table already, but the director and chelonian keeper are prepped to drop some learning on us. After discussions with our lead keeper on what he’d like us to see, they’ve set up an agenda for us. We’re going to jump into some current projects involving plumbing and construction and try not to get in the way or lose a finger help complete them. I want to learn construction, and I also want to learn what kinds of browse they feed here. We try to give our animals a varied diet, and now we can get some info on how to expand our menu.

I don’t have any images to share yet because we just got here. AND I don’t know what I am allowed to share. So you get something from my archives. Kind of a chef’s surprise.

Al says “Nah!”

We have a tour this morning, and I’m taking lots of photos, but if they say they’re just for personal use, you’ll just have to make a trip to my house to see them. In the meantime, random photos from my phone.

Happy Trails!

Looking For the Joy

It has been a while, friends. Two months. I know this because two days after my last post, my department suffered an unspeakable tragedy. Two months. And I still can’t speak of it. Not yet. Looking at the image on Time’s website, I can barely breathe. The snake I am holding in the photo died the next day despite our best efforts. Such a stupid phrase, really.  Despite our best efforts. As if we would give an animal in our care less than our best. The snake I was training on in my last post is gone. And it’s hard.

Moving on for the moment. Because I have to. The last couple of months has been a series of tests and more tests and inspections and questions and answers we don’t even have, and if I focus on it too hard, I’ll never be able to get out of bed. So I am looking for the good. Because it’s always there if I look. When I get to feeling sorry for myself, it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of despair. So I am choosing good today.

Here’s what’s good in my life, what brings me joy. The little things that make every day worthwhile. Click to enlarge and to read the captions.

There are other things, too, things that are not possible to capture in a photograph. The zoo guests who stop us in our work and tell us how sorry they are for our loss, the people who come each week as volunteers to help meet Al’s need for attention. My daughter, upon learning her cousin didn’t have an officiant for her upcoming wedding, takes it upon herself to become ordained online. She is now a card-carrying, ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s right. The Girl-child is now a Pastafarian. Our kids inherit our eyes, our hair, and our genetic garbage. It brings me great joy that mine has also inherited my off-beat sense of humor. And she’s available to perform weddings if you’re looking to get hitched. Who wouldn’t want to go to a wedding where the keepsake is a package of Ramen noodles?

What brings you joy today?

Notes From the Zookeeper: Working With Venomous Snakes

One of the most common questions I get is “Do you handle the venomous snakes?” The answer isn’t a straight “yes” or “no.” The answer is, we do work with them regularly (we offer food, clean the enclosures, and fill water bowls at least once a week), but we only put our hands on them if we absolutely have to. But sometimes, it’s necessary. A veterinarian might need to check a snake over do diagnose a problem, etc. So how do we do it? With lots of training, and some special tools.

Last week, our Lead Keeper, Stephen, needed to catch up a Catalina Island Rattlesnake (also known as the rattleless rattlesnake – they are a true Crotalus rattlesnake genetically, but they don’t grow a rattle), and he let me take some pictures to share. The photos were taken with my little phone, so they aren’t great, but I didn’t want to use a flash.

Step one: put the snake on the counter.

snake in trash can

We use large trash cans with modified lids for holding venomous snakes for feeding, cleaning enclosures, etc.

Step 2: Move the snake to a counter. It’s important to work a snake in a place that they can’t easily escape from.

Catalina island rattlesnake

We use long hooks to move venomous or nippy snakes from one place to another.

Step 3: Since Stephen actually needs to get his hands on this snake, he is going to have to “tube” it. You can see a selection of tubes of different sizes under the counter in the photo above. The idea is to choose a tube that is big enough for the snake to move into easily, but not so big that it can turn around while it is in there.

Snakes have poor vision, and they will instinctively choose a hiding place into which they fit snugly.

Stephen uses the hook to encourage the snake to move toward the tube. Since this is a fairly small snake, he can hold the tube with his hand. If it were a longer snake, like a cobra, he would hold the end of the tube with a pair of tongs.

Step 4: It’s hard to tell from the photo, but there are two tubes – one inside the other. The snake didn’t like the small tube, so it was offered a larger one. Once it slithered into the big one, the correct size tube was inserted. The snake wriggled right in.

tube a snake

The snake is finally moving into the tube. Sometimes it can take forty-five minutes or more to convince the snake that the tube is a great hiding place. This time, it only took a few minutes.

Step 5: Secure the snake in the tube by grabbing hold of it. Now the snake is safely restrained. The use of a clear tube means that not only can a veterinarian see any medical issues, we also know exactly where the snake’s head is.

hooks poisonous snake

Once the snake is about half-way into the tube, it’s safe to grab tube and snake together. Note that the tube is much too small for the snake to turn around and deliver a bite.

Stephen needed to “tube” this animal because the zoo we received the snake from requested photos of its vent area for comparison. Tubing is also used when a snake needs to be given an injection, must be anesthetized for a medical procedure, or even to get an x-ray of a non-venomous snake (it’s hard to radiograph a spine when its coils are all piled up on top of each other!).

I have so much to tell you about my week at Amphibian Management School and field work with Stephen!

What other questions do you have?

Good Things Thursday: My Joy in Pictures

This week has been a tough one, both personally and politically. It’s easy to focus on all the horrible things because they stand up and scream at us, while our joys can be a little less flamboyant. But if I focus on the bad all the time, how could I ever find the energy to get out of bed. So I’m going to show up for joy.

I’m first off grateful for my little phone because now I can snap pics of things when I need to. They aren’t great pictures, but they don’t have to be, do they?

The time change. Yeah, I hate the time change, but if we hadn’t set clocks ahead, I’d have missed this view when I opened up the building at the start of my work day.

gratitude

Old window, new day.

——-

what does radiated tortoise eat

Meatball takes over the sedum snack and polishes it all off. Go, Meatball!

K-brew coffee Knoxville

Coffee and yearbooking with a friend. Thanks, K-Brew!

Phelsuma klemmeri easy to breed

Second generation breeding of my Neon Day Geckos, a critically endangered species. Look at how big those eggs are!

flour beetles, fruit flies

Insect cultures! ALL the feeder insect cultures! I will get my frogs to BREED! I had my water bottle confiscated by TSA, but they somehow missed my feeder insect cultures in my suitcase.

giant tortoise diet

Making good use of found objects. I gave my giant tortoises a 400lb stump. Anderson (pictured in the back) likes to scratch her bum on it, but it’s also great for tucking greens into so they really have to work for their food. Sometimes I have good ideas.

crotalus molossus in zoo

Crotalus molossus. I am training on venomous snakes, and I only have one more session with this snake until I am checked off on this level. It is very exciting and not at all scary because my lead keeper is an excellent teacher. But don’t tell him I told you that.

And my latest joy is that I expect to receive a shipment of tadpoles today. After losing our cat on Monday, I slipped straight through the first stages of grief and onto the lesser-known Order-tadpoles-off-the-internet stage of depression. I’ll let you know if they get here alive. I am doubting it at this point because it is so cold, but there is still hope.

And new surprise goodness, I am off to have lunch with a friend. It might even include FALAFEL!

What is your joy this day?

That One Time I Did a Thing

So I did a thing. It’s a cool thing, too. Let me back up for a second.

A friend of mine has a cinnamon tree. Like, real cinnamon. You peel the bark, let it dry, and BOOM! Cinnamon for tea, baking, sticking up your nose… (just me, then? I’ll move along.) I didn’t know that cinnamon came from a tree at all. I thought it came from a can.

Last February, my friend asked me if I wanted some cuttings to try vegetative propagation ( a fancy term meaning: start a plant from cuttings). Of course, I did. She brought me several. I read all kinds of stuff on the internet, but almost no one had any real info on growing from cuttings, so I improvised. I dipped the ends in rooting hormones. One was potted in a plastic bag full of soil. One was in straight water. Another was  planted in normal potting soil and set outside.

Two died right away. One lingered. For nine months. It never turned brown, but it never grew, either. By that point, I knew I had to have a cinnamon tree of my very own. So where does one turn in times of such crisis? Why, to Ebay, of course. And that’s when I learned how expensive these things are. Like, eighty bucks.  For a tree. Yeah. My husband would totally be on board with that.

I looked through all the listings, and I found a little six-inch baby tree for $15. It was unseasonably warm for November, but I was afraid we’d have a cold snap and the tree would freeze before it arrived in the mail, so I contacted the seller. We chatted back and forth for a bit, and I realized I had found a seller who wanted me to succeed. So I placed my order.

When the package arrived, I discovered that Dave’s Garden hadn’t sent a six inch tree. They’d sent seedlings instead. Five of them. They said a seedling is tougher than larger plants, and they had sent extra so that I had a good chance of ending up with at least one thriving tree.

So how does a small, warm-weather, humidity-loving seedling survive in a house that stays 65 degrees in the winter? The only answer was a greenhouse. So I made one. Out of stuff I had lying around the house – specifically, a ten-gallon aquarium, two ziploc bags, some packing tape, and a light bulb.

I planted the seedlings and placed the pots in the ten gallon tank. Then I split the two bags along the sides to make a cover to hold in humidity. Then I put the little makeshift greenhouse on my baker’s rack and set it under a regular 60 watt bulb.

A month or so after setting up the seedlings, and look!

grow trees from cuttings

The new growth is a beautiful red color. It’s so pretty!

And now I’m three months into the project. The trees are growing so well that I have had to peel back the plastic to make room for new growth! And I have five healthy seedlings to show for my efforts.

This project has been such a success that I’m trying to grow some other things, too. What’s next for me? I’ve got my eye on one of Dave’s Garden’s nutmeg seeds…

What cool projects have you tried recently?