Zookeepers, animals enjoy new surroundings at Cat Canyon exhibit.



When asked if she enjoys her job, zookeeper Sara Niemczyk's face lights up with a big smile.

"I love my job," said Niemczyk, the keeper responsible for the new Cat Canyon exhibit at Lee Richardson Zoo. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd be bored doing anything else."

Niemczyk, who earned a degree in biology with an emphasis in environmental biology from Emporia State University, has been an animal keeper at the zoo for nearly six years. She is responsible for Cat Canyon, the lion exhibit and the primate area.

Cat Canyon, which opened Sunday after a year of construction, provides a larger, more natural habitat for the zoo's mountain lion, bobcats and black jaguars.

The new habitats for the jaguars and mountain lion are four and a half times larger than their previous exhibits. The yards include native grass, felled trees, hollow logs, rock caves, ponds, heated rocks at the viewing window and other natural features.

Niemczyk called the new facility "amazing." For her, there's more room to maneuver with a shovel and rake in her hand without banging into something, and the cats have a lot more space to explore.

"I love it because the cats love it. That's the most important thing," she said.

Especially for the jaguars, who by nature tend to be more anxious and instinctively want to hide and not be seen. The exhibit allows the cats to feel more comfortable, Niemczyk said.

"To be on display and always in the presence of people when every part of their being tells them not to be can be hard on them. This set-up allows them to be who they are and feel safe," she said.

Like people, animals also need some personal space. Niemczyk said the extra room in the barn lets her give the cats more space while she works.

"Now, I don't have to be in their bubble and I don't want them in my bubble, either. It's making everybody so much more happy," she said.

Taking care of zoo animals is enjoyable, but also entails a lot of work.

Kristi Newland, general curator and deputy zoo director, oversees the animal division and supervises the zoo's 15 animal keepers. She organizes animal transactions, keeps track of animals coming in and going out, veterinary care, diets, pest control, keeper continuing education and training.

Newland said people would definitely be surprised if they knew all the work that goes into maintaining the zoo and taking care of animals.

"The thing is, if you do it well, they don't know," she said.

The zoo has six areas, or routines, and the keepers are cross-trained and assigned to cover one or more of the areas. For example, the elephant area needs three keepers per day, while Niemczyk is the sole keeper in the cat and primate area.

To become a keeper, a person usually needs a college degree in zoology or a similar biology-related field, or enough experience to offset the lack of a degree, Newland said. Like other career fields, animal keepers also have continuing education and training.

In a typical day, Niemczyk starts at the lions' enclosure, then Cat Canyon and finally the primate barn. She checks on the animals first, then normally cleans yards, puts out clean water for the cats, and brings them outside for the day.

One new difference in maintaining Cat Canyon is some daily window washing.

Keepers tend to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. During the summer, because of extended hours and more daylight hours, there may be additional shifts staggered earlier or later in the day.

The cats at Cat Canyon include three black jaguars, two bobcats and one mountain lion.

Two of the jaguars, Bianca and Amelia, are 16-year-old sisters who have been at the zoo most of their lives. Kira, the new jaguar, is a 12-year-old female acquired from Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb.

Among the bobcats, Cactus is an 11-year-old female, and Bobby is 20-years-old and has been at the zoo for 18 years.

Payton the mountain lion is a 12-year-old male that just arrived at the zoo from the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita.

The process to acquire new animals is sometimes easy, sometimes challenging, Newland said.

One of the services the Association of Zoos and Aquariums offers to member zoos is a method to communicate about available animals and openings for animals, she said.

When the zoo's mountain lion passed away last year, there were no new cats available among member zoos. Newland said many other zoos also were looking to acquire a mountain lion, and Lee Richardson Zoo was behind others on a list searching for a new cat that had been trapped in the wild or an orphaned kitten.

"At that point, it didn't look like we would get any," Newland said. "And you don't want to go to anybody who breeds mountain lions because that would be irresponsible. There's enough in the wild that you don't need to breed them."

The zoo thought it might open Cat Canyon without a mountain lion. But not long after acquiring its new jaguar from another zoo that needed space to breed its other cats, the zoo was contacted out of the blue by Sedgwick County Zoo offering one of its three mountain lions, according to Newland.

Newland said acclimating a cat to new surroundings really depends on the individual cat. The new cats received physicals before leaving their previous zoos to make sure they were healthy.

"Kira the jag seemed to settle in better than Payton did. Payton took a little more time. He liked his cave outside really well," Newland said.

Acquiring another mountain lion largely will depend on availability and "whether one needs a home," Newland said.

"Mountain lions are normally solitary or alone creatures, except for breeding time. They like being by themselves, so he's quite happy the way he is," she said.

Niemczyk said there's definitely a difference in personality among the cats, and individual animals in general.

"A big part of our job as keepers is learning who's who, and how each is going to react, their favorite places, who's more shy or outgoing. Who's dominant or more submissive," she said.

Like any mother, Niemczyk doesn't play favorites when asked if she has a favorite among the Cat Canyon cats. She likes them all, though on certain days some can be stubborn.

"I like everybody, even when somebody's having a grumpy day and they hate looking at me. There's certain qualities in each cat that I really love. It's hard to play favorites like that," she said.

The cats are brought inside at night and are fed. They are separated during feedings, which prevents fights, and each cat receives a diet appropriate to maintain body weight.

Cats in the wild tend to gorge and then not eat for a couple of days, Niemczyk said, but zoo cats get a little less than they could possibly eat each day.

The bobcats get about three-fourths of a pound of feline diet processed meat containing all the necessary vitamins and nutrients made by a company in Nebraska that specializes in zoo diets while the jaguars and mountain lion get three pounds per day.

They are fed six days per week, and then fast on the seventh day but are given a large bone to gnaw on.

"That simulates a bit more what they would have in the wild. They wouldn't hunt every day. They wouldn't have an opportunity to eat every day. The bone keeps them happy and is also good for their teeth," Niemczyk said.

According to the zoo, more than 1,500 people came out on Sunday to have a look at Cat Canyon following its ribbon cutting ceremony. Both Newland and Niemczyk were impressed with the turnout.

"It was so awesome," Niemczyk said. "I tried to spread the word since we set the date, and my fiance was telling everybody he met. It was so awesome to see the whole sidewalk packed."

Newland was equally pleased with the turnout.

"I don't think any of us had any clue that that many folks would show up. It was great," she said.

Zoo hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Cat Canyon is open until 4:30 pm.