Cleaning up after tigers and bears may not be every teenager’s idea of how to spend spring break, but four students did just that last Thursday and Friday.
Not only did Spring Break Zoo Crew members put in two full days of work at Great Bend’s Brit Spaugh Zoo, but they also paid for the privilege.
When Zoo Educator Danielle Ricklefs announced the program for junior zookeepers, she envisioned five different students enrolling for each of the two days available. But students Tagan Brown, Kenna Dirks, Jarrod Ocker and Sierra Weatherman quickly signed up for both days. (A fifth student, Andrew Curtwright, attended Thursday only.)
“Five was our maximum,” Ricklefs said. “We really wanted to be able to work one-on-one with the kids.”
The crew got a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo. In what was meant to be much more than a job shadowing event, they helped Ricklefs develop educational programming for preschoolers, pitched in with the afternoon feeding and made enrichment items for the animals. And yes, they also got to clean some cages. Want to know the smelliest animal at the zoo? It depends on which student you ask.
Preparing and then delivering enrichment items was a fun part of the day. “We make the animals happy,” Ocker said.
Enrichment is an important part of their work, zookeeper Justine Doty said. The animals need daily stimuli that change from time to time. On Friday, the teens filled cardboard rolls with grapefruit slices and other treats, then closed up the ends, creating a tasty puzzle for lemurs, monkeys and kinkajous. Under the watch of Doty and zookeeper Jon Zimmerman, they were allowed to movie behind the fence that keeps the public within arm’s reach of the animals, and push the rolls through the bars of the cages.
As animals decided whether or not to accept the gifts, the students watched their behavior and determined whether this enrichment was a success or failure. They were also told not note any physical problems animals seemed to be having. Brown pointed to a grivet monkey and said, “That one has an obsession with its tail.”
Doty said the animal was getting a bald spot. “It could be from over-grooming,” she said. “That’s why we give the animals enrichment. When we do our records, we write down what they did and what their reaction was.”
When the Spring Break Zoo Crew was announced, Ricklefs described it as an opportunity for youth to experience what zoo careers are like and to learn what the zoo offers the community. Students paid $25 each day for the experience, but the cost did include their lunches.
Ricklefs said the program for youth zoo crew will be expanded this summer.