Kristi Newland

There are some questions that just naturally seem to bubble up during a visit to the zoo. Where did that animal come from? What do they eat? Where’s the water fountain? Asking questions is a wonderful way to learn. It shows an active and engaged mind and a desire to grow in understanding. Understanding is a big part of making a connection, and that’s what the zoo is all about.

With school starting soon, a timely question is, “How do I become a zookeeper?” Stay in school. These days many zoos require a college degree. There are some that require only a high school diploma, but the competition for jobs is intense, so the degree is helpful. Experience definitely helps even if you have that college degree. Volunteer at your local zoo or vet clinic. Help out on the family farm or ranch. Get a summer job involving animals (pet store, zoo, vet clinic, etc…).

Since we’re still in summer and summer can get quite hot here, “Where’s the water fountain?” is likely to come up. We have five public water fountains at this time: one by the restroom west of the lion exhibit, one on the south side of the bison and elk habitat, one by the restroom near the playground west of Wild Asia and two water fountains in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education (open 8-5 Monday – Friday). Another will be added to the list next month when the new lemur area opens.

If you’re interested in a broader selection of beverages, there are a number of drink machines throughout the zoo, or you can visit the service window or counter at the Safari Shoppe (located at the pedestrian entrance of the zoo) for something to quench your thirst. All proceeds at the Safari Shoppe benefit the zoo. For your added convenience, in addition to the public restrooms already mentioned you can also find restrooms in the Finnup Center and also by the locomotive north of the rhinoceros exhibit.

The graphics that share information about the zoo residents will provide the answer to “Where are the animals from?” showing what part of the world the species is native to. The graphics also contain many other interesting facts about the animals: endangered status, what they eat in the wild, and more. As far as the individual animals are concerned, odds are they were either born here or at another zoo. Rarely do animals come out of the wild anymore to populate zoos.

“What do the animals eat living at the zoo as opposed to in the wild?” With the variety of animals that live at Lee Richardson Zoo the answer to that question is as varied as the species. A mainstay for the hooved species is grass hay or alfalfa. Diets range from a special insectivore chow for the anteater to special commercially prepared meat for the carnivores. There is a whole industry focused on making feeds for animals, from pets to those on farms and those in zoos. The various grains, pellets, and chows, as well as meats, are designed to meet all the nutritional needs of the animal concerned. In addition to the nutritionally well-rounded chow or meat that is the center of the diet, we add fruits, vegetables, bones, or other items if appropriate for a little variety and to encourage natural behaviors.

“Can I feed the animals?” is also a question that guests often ask. Each animal is on a special diet designed specifically for them. Not only is it designed by species but also by individual. Some may have medical issues, allergies, or need to lose weight or even gain weight. All of that and more is considered in developing their diet. Many of the animals are offered browse – tree limbs with or without leaves – to chew on. That too is selected and offered with care since many species of trees are actually toxic if eaten. Since the diet is so special, and some of the animals can be dangerous, the general answer to the question is, we let the keepers who take care of the animals feed them so they get what they need. The zoo developed special animal encounters with some of the animals during which guests can feed the animals, but those encounters have been postponed this year due to social distancing issues.

“Can I pet the animals?” The residents of the zoo are here for your viewing pleasure. Reaching through the fence or over the fence to pet an animal on the other side can be dangerous for both you and the animal. While zoo animals are accustomed to people to some extent, they are not pets to be played with. They are ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild, here to give us a peek into their world.

“Do we have any babies?” Lee Richardson Zoo participates in cooperative breeding programs with other zoos in AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). Our goal is to only produce animals we can house here or know there’s a good home for elsewhere. Currently, we have a young roadrunner in the Marie Osterbuhr Aviary flight and are on baby watch with Cleo, the female giraffe.

During your visit to Lee Richardson Zoo, other questions may occur to you. Please ask any of the staff you encounter. We enjoy sharing information about the animals and the zoo.

Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo