New At the Houston Zoo

Posted on: September 14, 2021
By: Alan O'Neill
Posted in: Press Releases

Looking for a new adventure in Houston? Love animals? You can learn all about our Houston Zoo animals and be a zoo kepper, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s how you can become a zookeeper for a day at the Houston Zoo

Patrons can bathe elephants and feed gators as part of the zoo’s behind-the-scenes encounters. Behind-the-scenes encounters have returned to the Houston Zoo, offering families a chance to help feed, bathe and groom animals. Or, to paint with one. Private encounters with the zoo’s inhabitants now take place outdoors with social distancing measures in place. Melissa Wong, the zoo’s director of conservation education, says one of the more popular VIP-style experiences is the elephant bath. Acting as a helper to zoo keepers, families get “eye to eye” with the herd, she says, working alongside staff to learn what daily care looks like for the animals.

Beginning with bath time. Using a tear-free soap, guests lather up the enormous animals, then grab large brushes to start scrubbing. Kids in particular, Wong says, get as close as they can to the animals, reaching the brushes through the barrier to scrub “from the top of their trunk all the way down the sides,” ridding their animal friends of dirt and mud. In fact, she says, kids are often more thorough than their adult counterparts in cleaning the animals. “You get a little wet and dirty as you can imagine, it’s an awesome time,” she says. The bath is part of the zoo keeper’s visual inspection of each elephant. Families will learn how the animals participate in their own care, such as presenting their feet for their handlers to check the foot pad.

The zoo’s elephants are patient and remain still during bath time, especially Baylor, a male teenage elephant who is often the star of the encounter. “Baylor is a really wonderful participant,” Wong says. “He enjoys meeting new people and demonstrating all of his different behaviors,” such as offering his foot for a pedicure. Keepers make use of large files to make it easier for the animals to walk. “It’s a testament to the relationship of the keeper and the bond that they’ve built… that the elephants are so comfortable and trusting to allow our guests to get this close,” Wong says. Other animal experiences added to the lineup in 2020 involve brushing goats and helping to train orangutans. In the sea lion encounter, animals hold a paintbrush in their mouths to paint a canvas, or they use their noses to make nose prints with paint.

The guest takes the art home. Young children respond well to the Galápagos tortoise encounter, Wong says. “There is nothing like going in the habitat — actually in the exhibit — with these massive tortoises,” Wong says. “It’s just an incredible experience”. Guests help feed the tortoises leafy greens. Sometimes, the tortoises will let visitors scratch their long necks. The tactile reinforcement delights the animals, she says. At the sloth encounter, guests will see Curly grow enthusiastic when presented with his favorite treats, hard-boiled eggs and grapes. “As a sloth, ‘excited’ looks a little different,” Wong laughs. Observing closely, visitors learn that he’s happy because he moves slowly back and forth on his tree perch. Or, “his little nose will start moving,” she says. “He’s got such a personality.”

Sometimes, Curly allows guests to pet his back to feel the thick, coarse hair that protects sloths in the rainforest. And, to spend time with the zoo’s American alligators Pop and Snap, guests are issued gloves. Escorting the herpetology team, the group steps on to a platform to toss alligator biscuits to the reptiles. Chock full of vitamins and minerals, the biscuits are dense with fishmeal, grains and other ingredients that mimic what a gator might forage in the wild. “For alligators, they are tasty and yummy,” Wong says. To humans, they smell really fishy. The gloves help protect hands from the potent scent, she says. Animal encounters start at $90 per non-member, and groups are limited to a total of four to 12. Some encounters have minimum age requirements. Wong says families often reserve the experiences to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones. More than one sea lion encounter has resulted in a surprise marriage proposal, she says. “It’s so lovely to see those life moments happen here at the zoo.”

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