When the shrills and laughter from those both young and old can’t be heard any longer, and the 600,000 seasonal visitors have left, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo staff members’ duties don’t stop. Have you ever wondered where the animals go during the cold Indiana winters? How they remain looked after and comfortable? Because of the exceptional and high-quality care provided by the Zoo’s animal care department, they remain right here at home.
Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo animal curators Shelley Scherer and Stacy Rhody are just two of the 110 team members that keep the facility running 24/7. The animal care department, comprised of around 80 individuals, is the biggest of the year-round staff.
“We oversee the management of our animal collection – the animal care specialists who tend to our animals and also their supervisors,” says Scherer, who has been with the Zoo for 30 years. “We have six different sections and 8-10 keepers per section, each with its own supervisor.”
The Zoo is well-equipped to keep things running during the off-season, its main focus being the animals happiness and wellbeing.
“Almost all of our animals have an indoor habitat in which they can reside given inclement weather occurs,” explains Rhody. “We put temperature thresholds in place and have many ways to supplement the environment they would normally experience outdoors – UV lamps, misters, humidifiers and foggers all help us create those environments artificially.”
Blind to the regular zoo-goers’ eye, the indoor habitats for the animals are located underneath or behind the outdoor enclosures. The lions’ can be found behind the large rocks in their environment. The wattled crane, a cold-hardy species housed in the African Journey portion of the Zoo, can retreat to its on-exhibit shelter with heating, lighting, bedding and water. The American Alligators are in an indoor pool with ramps, mats to protect their feet and scales, and sand for digging. And the beloved giraffes? In a giraffe barn with all the amenities to keep them safe and well cared for.
“The indoor and outdoor habitats give the animals an option – they have a choice and control over their environment,” says Rhody. “Of course there are times when we must keep them indoors to prevent frostbite, but we allow them to go back out when its appropriate. We have many exotic species that would normally never be exposed to northeast Indiana winters and the ebbs and flows that come with it, so in order to protect them and their wellbeing we have thresholds in place.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many animals at the Zoo do not shy away from the cold temperatures. The Canada Lynx are well adapted and naturally take to this climate. The North American River Otter also remain content in their outdoor enclosure, as do the adorable Red Pandas.
While the foot-traffic during the off-season is minimal, there is ample time for the animal care specialists to focus on enriching and training the animals.
“Our main goal when training is to teach animals to cooperate when they receive medical care,” says Rhody. “When the giraffes are outside for 8-10 hours a day during the summer, the time for our keepers to train is removed, but when they are in the barn that gives us a primary opportunity. The same goes for the lions. We do not enter the felid (big cat) exhibits, so they are trained to come to the mesh to present to us so we can keep an eye on things. It’s all about voluntary participation and cooperation. The animals always have a choice to leave a session – that is completely up to them.”
“All of our animals are weighed regularly, too,” adds Scherer. “They are trained to walk onto a scale, so that way we can make diet adjustments if they’re gaining too much weight or do not weigh enough. It’s extremely rewarding at the curator level to see our animal care specialists extremely motivated to build trust and create relationships with the animals.”
The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo upholds accreditation through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and was the 13th zoo in the nation to earn this designation. Today there are close to 280 AZA accredited zoos throughout the country. It’s internationally recognized for its innovative displays, award-winning animal exhibits and well-manicured grounds, and is truly a gem in the Fort Wayne community. Visitors near and far benefit from the efforts put forth by the Zoo staff, but for Scherer, Rhody and all of the Zoo crew, one common goal remains at the forefront: Excellence in animal welfare.
“Our staff is integrated with the intent to provide the best well being for the animals,” says Rhody. “Just like raising and caring for a child, caring for the animals takes a village.”
Address: 3411 Sherman Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808
Phone: (260) 427-6800
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