Helping the Helpless Animals

Spring is here, and it’s a time of year when many baby animals are emerging from their winter hiding place. Some of those babies may be a little different.

Recently, Antler Ridge Sanctuary in New Jersey rescued a litter of eastern gray squirrels, but one of those squirrels had a pure white coat. The rare white fur means that the squirrel has a form of albinism.

A white coat with red eyes mIMG_0833 (1)eans that the animal is an albino. Some animals are leucistic;
these white-coated animals have their natural colored eyes but their lack of color makes them stand out from the other animals of the same species. Other animals are piebald; they have patches of albino white mixed with patches of their natural color.

The lack of color puts these special babies at risk. In a world of browns, greens, and greys the pure white is very hard to disguise from predators. Often albino animals, especially small prey animals such as squirrels are targeted by larger animals and don’t make it in the wild for very long.

Of course not all white animals have albinism, for example arctic animals such as polar bears and arctic foxes are white to blend with their surroundings.

However, without the help of rescuers many albino animals would have been lost in the wild, some of these animals are rehabilitated and then live out their days in zoos or aquariums.

To learn more read about the albino squirrel read the article here!

And…find out more about animal rehabilitators and the work zookeepers and aquarist in these books by author Jennifer Keats Curtis with the help of organizations around the country.

AnimalHelpersRehab_187Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators

Like humans, animals can get sick or hurt. People see doctors. Pets have veterinarians. What happens to wild animals when they are injured, become ill, or are orphaned? Often, wildlife rehabilitators are called to their rescue. This photographic journal takes readers “behind the scenes” at four different wildlife rehabilitation centers. Fall in love with these animals as they are nursed back to health and released back to the wild when possible. This is the first of a photographic series introducing the different ways and the many people who care for a wide variety of animals.

AH_Zoos_187Animal Helpers: Zoos

Zoos are amazing places to see and learn about the many native and exotic of animals that inhabit this world. Some animals are plentiful while others are threatened or in danger of extinction. Zookeepers not only feed and care for these animals, they may also be helping to conserve and protect whole species through breeding and “head start” programs. Follow the extraordinary duties of these unusual animal helpers in this behind-the-scenes photographic journal.

AH_Aquariums_187Animal Helpers: Aquariums

Where else could you stay dry while visiting aquatic animals from around the world? Only in an aquarium can you visit and learn about all these different local and exotic animals. Aquarium staff care for and teach about these animals, as well as work to conserve and protect threatened and endangered species. Follow this behind-the-scenes photographic journal as it leads you into the wondrous world of aquariums and the animal helpers who work there.


A Trip to the Zoo with Animal Helpers: Meet keepers from the Austin Zoo

Working in a zoo is a unique job, and four keepers from the Austin Zoo share their experience from getting the job, to the daily life of caring for animals.

First we talk with Keeper Kris Ledoux, who has been a zookeeper for 4 years and works with the birds, farm animals, reptiles, coatis, goats and prairie dogs.

Longhorn enrichment on train ride.kris ledoux on right

Please talk a little about your training (how you became a keeper) to help our young readers understand the process.

I was a science teacher when I started volunteering here. I liked working at the zoo better!

Do any of the animals’ behaviors make you laugh aloud? If so, what are they?

All of the time. Goats and donkeys have great personalities. They are funny when the play.

For our young readers who would love to work at the zoo, how would you suggest they get started?

 A science degree is important. And, volunteer for rescue groups! It will teach you about caring for animals and what is involved. 

Keeper Marcy Griffith has been with the zoo two years and works with lions, tigers, bears, foxes, wolves, snakes, lizards, kinkajous, and tortoises.

marcy griffith with tortoise

What is your favorite part of your job?

Spending time with the animals is my favorite. I also like watching them eat and play. 

Please provide details on working with the animals under your care, including socializing, feeding, and enrichment. Do you create toys and enrichment items for the animals? If so, what are they?

We use boxes with food and scents.

What behaviors and cues do you observe to help gauge the animals’ physical and mental health?

If they aren’t eating well or are tired all of the time, or they are pacing a lot, it may mean something is wrong.

Working with the big cats, bears, monkeys, lemurs and parrots is Keeper Chelsey Norman, who has been with the zoo for one year.

Please talk a little about your training (how you became a keeper) to help our young readers understand the process.

Volunteering in animal care at a vet clinic and at the zoo.

Do any of the animals’ behaviors make you laugh aloud? If so, what are they?

One monkey really loves her mirror toy and she makes an angry face at you if you get too close to the mirror.

Do you have pets at home?

Yes, a Siamese cat.

Finally, Keeper Kelly Todd has been with the zoo for seven years and takes care of the primates, big cats and reptiles.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The monkeys

Please talk a little about your training (how you became a keeper) to help our young readers understand the process.

I have a Masters of Arts degree in Anthropology, specializing in primate behavior.

For our young readers who would love to work at the zoo, how would you suggest they get started?

Take science classes.

AH_Zoos_128Thank you to all of the keepers that have participated in this series! If you would like to read more about what it is like to work in a zoo check out Animal Helpers: Zoos.

A Trip to the Zoo with Animal Helpers: Meet Turtle Back Zoo Keeper Erica Mueller

turtleback zoo erica What animals do you care for at the zoo? Are there babies and adults?

I take care of our jaguars, cougars, black bears, wolves, leopards, red panda, foxes, and groundhog. Right now there are only adult animals but we hope to have some babies in the future from some of our cats!

How long have you been a keeper?

I have been a keeper for about 6 years.


What is your favorite part of your job? Which aspects are most difficult?

 My favorite part of the job is getting to work with some of the coolest animals! I really love taking care of our cats and wolves especially but I enjoy taking care of all of the animals. I also like to talk with zoo visitors about our animals and how that species lives in the wild. One of the more difficult things about being a zoo keeper is that it is a very physical job, which can be very tiring, but getting to work with these animals makes it all worth it!

Please talk a little about your training (how you became a keeper) to help our young readers understand the process.

I have a college degree in Biology. A lot of zoos require that their animal keepers have a college degree in a life science. During college I volunteered with a place that takes in, cares for, and releases all kinds of birds. After this, I saw a job opening at a zoo in New Jersey. I applied for this job and got it. At my first zoo job I got a lot of experience with all kinds of animals. When I started working at Turtle Back Zoo, where I am a keeper now, I worked with all of the animals. I really liked working with the carnivores. When the zoo added jaguars and snow leopards, as well as a brand new cat building, they needed another keeper to help take care of all the new animals. Now I help to take care of our carnivore collection every day.
Please provide details on working with the animals under your care, including socializing, feeding, and enrichment. Do you create toys and enrichment items for the animals? If so, what are they?

All of our animals were born in a zoo so they are used to humans in their lives. Our cougars and wolves were hand-raised since they were very young. This does not mean that they are tame, like a pet dog or cat, but we are able to work with them more easily since they were introduced to keepers at a young age.

Most of our animals eat meat, and we feed them once a day. Sometimes if we are doing training they get a little part of their diet earlier in the day as we use their food as a reward. Our bears eat omnivore chow, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Once in a while our bears get fish, which they really love as a treat. Our red panda eats bamboo, leaf-eater biscuits, and grapes, apple, and pear. Our groundhog eats rodent chow, and fruits and vegetables.

Enrichment is a really important thing that we do for all of our animals. Most of them get some kind of enrichment every day. There are lots of things that we can do for enrichment, including scents, puzzle feeders, toys, different foods, and even TV and music. Our wolves love rolling on the ground where we put down perfume or spices, and the bears usually have fun trying to get grapes out of a ball-shaped puzzle feeder.

Some of the best enrichment comes from things that we create ourselves. Our cougars and jaguars love pouncing on and tearing up cardboard box “animals” that we put together from different sized boxes and paper towel rolls.


Do any of the animals’ behaviors make you laugh out loud? If so, what are they?

Our male cougar is very vocal, and it is almost like he is trying to talk. Sometimes I think he is trying to have a conversation with me, and it makes me laugh a lot.

How do you work with other zoo staff, including vets?

At the zoo we need to work with lots of different people and departments. We need to work closely with the zoo director, curator, and supervisor. Wehelp out other keepers who work in different sections, such as birds and reptiles, if they need a hand. The horticulture department helps us determineturtleback zoo erica2 what trees and vegetation can go in and around our exhibits. The maintenance team helps us when we need a repair and can use heavy-duty equipment to move things such as large tree limbs. We work very closely with our vet and vet-tech. Our observations greatly help them in determining possible treatment for an animal.


What behaviors and cues do you observe to help gauge the animals’ physical and mental health?

Each animal is different, so we get to know what is normal for each one. Any change in personality or behavior may be an indication that something may be going on. In all of our animals, we make sure that they are indicating that they are relaxed and comfortable in their environment. Loss of appetite, change in weight, and change in personality are some of the cues that we look at when gauging an animal’s physical and mental health.


Do you have pets at home?

Yes! I have a beagle, and an orange tabby cat.


For our young readers who would love to work at the zoo, how would you suggest they get started?

Work towards going to college for a life science, such as biology or zoology. Then, VOLUNTEER!! Most of the zookeepers I know, including myself, started out volunteering at places before becoming a paid zookeeper. Good places to start volunteering include animal shelters and wild animal rehabilitation and rescue centers. In high school, I volunteered at an animal shelter where I helped socialize cats and kittens for adoption.  In college, I volunteered at a bird rehabilitation center, where I helped take care of injured hawks, ducks, and songbirds.

To learn more about the Turtle Back Zoo visit their website, or for more information on Animal Helpers: Zoos check out the book homepage.



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.


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.


To learn more about the Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary, please visit their Facebook page and website,

If you want to learn more about the book Animal Helpers: Zoos go to the Sylvan Dell book page

National Zoo and Aquarium Month

June is National Zoo and Aquarium Month! 

The zoo is a fantastic place for children to get up close to animals that live on all ends of the earth where learning and exploration is fun even to an adult. However, there is so much more to a zoo or aquarium than meets the eye.  What you don’t see is the rehabilitation programs where zookeepers work with injured animals, animal behavior research and endangered species research to keep these animals around for us to enjoy.

These are the people that help our authors, research the animal behaviors featured in Sylvan Dell books, and check the For Creative Minds sections for accuracy. We would like to thank all the wildlife specialists for their help through the years, and encourage Sylvan Dell readers to support and visit their local zoos and aquariums this month and throughout the year!