This story is the final part of a series about unique jobs in Washington. Some jobs are necessary for the city to function or require a special set of skills,but all are cogs in the wheel that makes Washington tick.
WASHINGTON – Animal keeper Matt Neff called Alex like he would call a dog.
“Hey,Alex,C’mere! Come on,bud!” Neff said.
He crouched down,banged on a bright red bucket and held up similarly colored target the size of a Frisbee so Alex could see where to go.
“C’mon bud,let’s go this way,” Neff said. “Can you turn around?”
Alex lumbered over and bit the air near the target,then bumped it with his nose. Neff blew a whistle and offered a carrot to the giant Aldabra tortoise.
Neff,who studied biology and environmental science in college,works in the herpetology department at the Smithsonian National Zoo. He spends much of his time in the Reptile Discovery Center helping to care for,and sometimes train,the animals that live there.
Training zoo animals is part of what keepers call “animal enrichment,” which involves crafting environments to mimic those in the wild to encourage typical species behavior,animal keeper Lauren Augustine said. Keepers might introduce new smells or sounds or they might hide food so animals have to use natural skills to find it.
“A lot of people don’t think we enrich or train our reptiles,so it’s really important for us to get that out there to the public,” Augustine said.
Certain animals like Alex can be trained using operant conditioning,a system of rewards to encourage behavior,to serve more practical purposes. The tortoises often spend time in an outdoor exhibit,and this method of target training brings them in on their own for the night.
“At the end of the day,when they’re grazing outside … you just can’t quite pick them up and bring them inside,” Neff said. The two males weigh about 350 and 500 pounds,and the female weighs about 150 pounds.
Animal keepers in the Reptile Discovery Center have a challenging,but rewarding,job,Augustine said.
“We have to look at all these little details,not just feeding our animals and cleaning them,” Augustine said.
She and the four other keepers,a curator and a team of volunteers work every day to care for about 70 species of reptiles and amphibians. Each animal has a specific requirement for food,temperature,humidity and nesting.
“A lot of times,we’re just doing to the best we possibly can,and when we learn new things we try to publish it” in scientific journals,Augustine said.
She said that keepers first create a supportive environment for each animal and then create enrichment opportunities. Sometimes,enrichment also involves research,Augustine said as she started to take a video of the three false water cobras in their exhibit. She’s looking to see if the snakes leave the enclosure in a particular order,which would show that the three reptiles have formed a hierarchy. She and animal keeper Kyle Miller think that hierarchy may be changing as the snakes mature. The keepers determine sexual maturity based on size,which occurs when the snakes are 4 to 6 feet long. Their current size is 4 to 5 feet,right at that point.
A door in the back of the exhibit slid open to reveal Miller,who transferred from the zoo’s Amazonia exhibit to the Reptile Discovery Center in May. Since then,he’s learned how to feed the trained snakes on his own. Like Alex the giant tortoise,the snakes are target trained,but Miller uses a blue buoy on the end of a three-foot stick. At first,keepers put the scent of food on the buoy to encourage the snakes to follow it out of the enclosure. Now,they don’t need the scent to know their blue visitor means “food.”
Miller carefully moved the target into the exhibit and caught the eye of the snake near the opening.
The snake pounced toward the buoy,nudging it forcefully with the tip of its nose as Miller fearlessly led it into a bucket and gave it dead mice. Miller dragged the bucket behind the scenes and replaced it with another for the next snake.
Miller and other keepers always take precautions when working with the animals,especially during feeding time. The toxicity of the false water cobra venom hasn’t been studied thoroughly,but a bite could prove nasty. When Miller works with bigger snakes such as the zoo’s Burmese python,he makes sure to stand back a safe distance and use tongs to feed it.
“Safety’s always a big concern,” Miller said. “It’s something we emphasize here.”
Many of the animal keepers had an interest in animals long before they began working at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Augustine remembers her father taking her and her twin sister hiking in Valley Forge and catching black rat snakes.
“He would frequently bring snakes home,and we would keep them for a little while,and I was always really enamored with animals,” Augustine said. She studied ecology and environmental biology as an undergraduate and is currently working toward a master’s degree in conservation science.
Miller,too,seemed destined to work with animals. He is also finishing a master’s in conservation education. He said he’s always had an interest in animals and plants because of his grandfather,who gardened,and his uncle,who was an aquarium hobbyist. Miller’s room growing up was “always filled with something.” Now,all he has to do to learn about and care for animals is show up to work.
“For me it started as a hobby,and I was fortunate enough to segue it into my career,” Miller said.
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.