A Trip to the Zoo with Animal Helpers: Meet Austin Zoo Director Patti Clark

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a zoo? In the newly released Animal Helpers: Zoos, author Jennifer Keats Curtis worked with four zoos to learn more about the duties of a zookeeper and what it takes to care for so many different types of animals. This week we meet Patti Clark of the Austin Zoo and learn what it is like to be the director of the zoo, and why everyday brings a new adventure.

Patti Clark never fails to play the Texas Lottery.

As Director of the private, nonprofit Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary—a volunteer position that occupies her 364 days a year—she hopes to someday use those winnings to construct a new keeper building that would include keeper office space, food prep space, an infirmary, and onsite vet clinic for the animals.

austinzoo1Despite the tremendous number of hours she puts in, Patti never takes a vacation. “There is something magical about this place,” says Clark, who somehow manages to also serve on four other nonprofit boards in her “spare” time, “I’m afraid I’ll miss something exciting and fun!”

What began as a goat ranch nearly three decades ago has become a permanent home to more than 350 animals including big cats; primates; birds; reptiles; amphibians; mammals, such as llama and deer; and one marsupial—a big red kangaroo initially misrepresented as a much smaller wallaby.

With a meager staff of 26 employees, Clark and her crew ably manage to help these hundreds of exotic and animals, 95% of whom were rescued from neglect and abuse, unwanted by owners, or surrendered to Animal Control officers.

The Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary, one of four zoos featured in the new Animal Helpers: ZOOS, differs from traditional zoos because the rescued animals are on exhibit to unescorted visitors. Guests have a chance to see these animals, to learn about different species, and to get first-hand education and information about the harm that exotic pet ownership and roadside circuses can cause for these creatures. Patti jumped at the chance to be part of this new book because education is a crucial part of the Zoo’s mission.

Even though there are days when she feels chained to her desk, Patti’s day is never dull.

In January, she says, calls from the 4-H Clubs roll in, as children realize that the animals they have raised are going to be slaughtered.

Last month, they took in a two-foot-long alligator, who arrived in a tiny ferret cage.

This week, she was heavy on tortoise calls. “People buy these tiny cute tortoises in pet stores,” she explains, “That animal grows, and it grows fast until it becomes two feet across or more and no longer fits into that small glass aquarium. Once he gets in the backyard and starts eating all of the vegetation, the owner does not want him anymore. We currently have 15 tortoises here.”

Patti also answers a lot of calls about unwanted birds and snakes, mostly big pythons and boas that apartment dwellers can no longer keep.

Most of the eight tigers and five lions who now reside at the zoo were purchased as babies and hand-raised by folks who thought it seemed like a good idea at the time. One trucker kept his tiger cub in the truck cab with him for company…until the feline became too big and aggressive.

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Leroy the Lion (pictured) is one of Patti’s favorites, though he had a similarly troubled past. Leroy served as a “junkyard lion” until he was rescued and brought to his new home in Austin. At first, Leroy, who is maneless because he is neutered, was terribly thin and sick with mange, a skin disease. When he tried to stand, his anklebone shattered. Although scars from the mange still show under his coat, thanks to Austin Zoo vets and staff, Leroy is healed, happy and healthy. His favorite toys? Old tires, which he carries around the yard and guards as if they were prey. He then lunges at, bites and claws the durable rubber. “We get deer donated that have been culled from game management ranches and from a deer processor located close to the Zoo,” explains Patti, “Leroy is quiet while stalking his prey. It is amazing that such a large animal can move soundlessly across the enclosure yard. He does like to join in roaring with our two other male throughout the day.”

Since the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary is currently at capacity for some species, Patti spends a portion of nearly every single day networking with other zoos and rehabilitation facilities to find permanent placement for these unwanted animals.

Despite some of the everyday frustrations that come with managing the staff and animals—and not having limitless funds—Patti clearly loves what she does. “In the Zoo, you won’t get rich with money, but your life will be rich,” she says.

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To learn more about the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary, please visit their Facebook page and website, http://www.austinzoo.org/.

If you want to learn more about the book Animal Helpers: Zoos go to the Sylvan Dell book page http://www.sylvandellpublishing.com/bookpage.php?id=AH_Zoos

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