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June 3, 2011 > Travel: Our Local Oakland Zoo

Travel: Our Local Oakland Zoo

By Denny Stein
Photos By Dr. Park

Have you ever wondered, "Where's OUR zoo?!" Well, just up the highway from Tri-City neighborhoods, there is a whole contingent of more than 660 native and exotic animals that would make Noah proud. Led by Executive Director Dr. Joel Parrott (honest), the award winning Oakland Zoo has come a long way from jail-like zoos of yore. Today's beasts roam in open air and wilderness type enclosures, protected from their human observers by low walls, moats, and screening. A raft of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers, interns, apprentices, and keepers, is responsible for the welfare and happiness of these now urban animals.

We had come to see newborn North American River Otters. Born on February 15th of this year, Ahanu (He Who Laughs) and Tallulah (Leaping Water) are adorable pups even at three months old. Popping out of their "night" house, they scampered around the boulders and stumps, and through tall grasses that re-create their natural habitats. Ahead of them came their four-year-old mother, Ginger, and their Dad, Heath, now twelve years old.

Noses in the air, heads up, peeking over the grass, all four round, sleek bodies headed for the fresh water pool surrounded by a plexi-glass enclosure. The difference in size was evident, the pups being about half as large as their parents. Given that at birth they are about the size of a stick of butter, it's clear that they have been well cared for in their first several months. You can't fault a River Otter on cuteness, though, large or small. Their little black button noses, round eyes, and perked up diminutive ears can charm even the stalest curmudgeon.

If you can put cute aside for a moment, admire their well-muscled eel-like bodies, covered in short dense fur off of which the cold pond waters pearl. Coloring varies from dark brown on top to lighter brown or grey on their bellies; cheeks can be grey or white. River Otter jaws seem to have an overbite that creates a playful and cartoon-esque look, while long whiskers on either side add a slight air of wisdom; deep black eyes prove that they have Mr. Magoo at a disadvantage. When they cross those powerful little webbed paws over their tummies, and cock their head to the side, inspecting you, they resemble magical professors.

But all these attributes have purposes other than enchanting their audience. The long whiskers have nerve-endings that detect food, their muscular bodies can dip, dive and glide swiftly through the water to catch that food, and their webbed feet make them excellent swimmers. As you might guess, their main source of nourishment comes from ponds and streams. According to the Oakland Zoo, North American River Otters eat "fish, crayfish, frogs, turtles, and aquatic invertebrates, plus an occasional bird, rodent or rabbit... much of their diet [in the wild] consists of 'rough' fish like carp, suckers, catfish, and sculpins."

In captivity, these otters are fed fish, horsemeat, vegetables, and cat food. Like most of the zoo's animals, they also get "enrichment" snacks such as hard-boiled eggs, goldfish, mice, chicks, and bones. Anything new is exciting, and remember - they are carnivores. A big treat is an "otter pop" made from a fish and carrot slurry frozen in cubes. Sardines, smelt, and crayfish are called "otter sushi."

As we talked to Ashley Terry, one of Oakland's three otter keepers, school children scampered along the Zoo's paths with cries of "Let's look at the otters! Let's look at the otters!" A flock of seven-year-olds, noses almost pressed to the clear plastic up against which the pool waters splashed watched Ahanu and Tallulah diving, backstroking, twirling and popping up. Ashley told us that Ginger had been quite shy of visitors when she first arrived three years ago, but her pups have taken to the audience as though born to it.

If you see a keeper or other zoo staff, be sure to stop and talk with them. They are full of stories you won't hear everyday. For example, the fifth otter here is Axel. He's 19 years old, a retiree from Sea World. Heath was already here and slightly depressed as he had lost his mate. Axel came to Oakland from Florida for a similar reason. They became devoted to each other, and even now, when Axel is resting inside, Heath pops back in to check on him every few hours. Heath also had a little mouse friend for a while, an unorthodox relationship in the world of carnivores.

The animal keepers at the Oakland Zoo don't go into most enclosures. They have a policy called "protected contact," which means that both animals and humans are protected from each other. They meet at the boundaries, get to know each other, and interact at their windows. Training is important though as keepers must move animals, safely, between enclosures, or in and out of their night houses. The vets also need to be able to treat a sick animal without terrifying it. So these otters, for example, will move toward a specific "target" when asked, enter a chute for injections, stand on a scale and try to stay still (!) for several seconds at a time.

Did you ever consider a career as a zookeeper? It's not the first job that comes to mind right out of high school or college, but it is a fascinating and rewarding profession. Many keepers start out as volunteers at the Oakland Zoo and move up the ranks until they are offered a staff position. This was the case with both keepers we met last Friday, Zach and Ashley. Zach had degrees in finance and music, but ended up doing something that really mattered to him, working outdoors, with animals, in the field of conservation. Ashley had earned her way up the ranks, and though she has no biology or zoology background, tends to the needs of various animals with wisdom and patience. You have to admire someone who likes Fruit Bats and knows them by name.

In the next few weeks, we'll visit those Fruit Bats, and the Wallaroos (more babies!). So don't miss an issue, or better yet, take a trip to the Oakland Zoo and report back. Special Zoo Alert: A Walk in the Wild is the Zoo's annual fundraising event. An "adults only" culinary celebration, it takes place this year on June 25 from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. Check the Oakland Zoo website for more information and tickets.

The Oakland Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. and is located in the 525-acre Knowland Park, at 9777 Golf Links Road, off Highway 580. Check out all that there is to do at the zoo at www.oaklandzoo.org.

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