Animal attraction

Zookeeper enriches lives of animals under her care.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Macaws bellow from a rock wall, a cuckoo bird squawks for attention from another room, and tiny monkeys curiously peer from behind tree branches. This is the world that greets Laura Reisse each morning when she arrives for work in the Tropical Rainforest Aviary at the Henry Vilas Zoo.

Shrek and Fiona, a social pair of Capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, are among the first animals to acknowledge her from behind the glass. Around a corner in the free-fly area, birds chirp and flutter overhead while Steve, an adorable orange-rumped agouti, wanders under a footbridge.

Reisse, 40, has worked at the zoo for 10 years and is one of 12 (soon to be 13) zookeepers on staff. The aviary she oversees includes 18 species of birds, seven species of mammals, nine species of fish, and seven species of reptiles or invertebrates. When called upon, she can also work in other areas of the zoo, as well.

Before the gates open to the public, she’ll clean animal areas and feed and move them from their more secure night enclosures to their day exhibits.

Then it’s time for enrichment, which is an opportunity for the zookeeper to interact with the animals, encouraging them to exhibit all of the behaviors they would be using in the wild. “When I come to work, I want to be sure these animals all have great days and great interaction. This is part of my job. If I don’t do it, I’m not doing my job.”

Enrichment takes time, Reisse notes, because the zookeeper is building relationships with the animals, and animals function at their own pace. There are a select few species that Reisse will not engage with.

The Two-spotted Assassin Bug is one. Just over an inch long, these critters have a sharp poboscis to stab their food. “We do very limited enrichment with them,” she says. “I might change how the sticks are arranged in their exhibit, or what food they will eat, or the humidity. It’s all about manipulating a bug so it starts to mimic a little bit more of the uncertainty of the wild.”

A graduate of the University of Miami in Florida, Reisse earned a biology degree thinking she’d work with killer whales, but after moving to Wisconsin with her husband, an internship at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo set her on a different path. “I had no idea that I liked birds,” she laughs, but after working with cranes, she fell in love.

Why birds? “I honestly don’t know,” she admits. “They’re just so neat and so different. I love seeing them, hearing them, and watching them.”

Keeping a safe distance

Henry Vilas Zoo’s aviary has more than birds, and Reisse is responsible for the building’s entire ecosystem, from animals to the vegetation inside the free-fly space where the temperature stays a humid 75 degrees or warmer year-round.

In winter, Reisse must shovel snow and ice from the building’s entrances, but she can always find respite in the aviary caring for the building’s birds, fish, and exotic animals such as marmosets and emperor tamarins. The adorable, cuddly monkeys may be hard to resist for zoo visitors, but a zookeeper is there to enrich, not befriend.

Laura Reisse entices marmosets with edible treats.

“We do not handle the animals. We feed them. We want them to be comfortable within a certain range of us without crossing the line. I don’t want to have a monkey on my shoulder when I’m trying to clean. I want them close and comfortable so I can observe them, but I don’t want to cross that line into personal pet territory.”

Loro is an exception. The blue and gold macaw was born at the zoo and is used for educational purposes. Summoning him for photos, he perches and preens on Reisse’s arm as she softly speaks to him.

Surprisingly, tarantulas are among Reisse’s favorite zoo animals. “There are times when they can be very scary, but there’s also a limit to what they can do. They come in so many beautiful shapes and sizes and are easy to care for.” Zookeepers don’t handle tarantulas because they’re too fragile.

For the most part, zoo animals don’t have to work hard for anything because it’s all provided, she admits, which is why enrichment is so crucial. “In theory, we can enrich every animal in the zoo, but you have to be knowledgeable about the species, understand how it lives in the wild, and then think about how you can manipulate it at the zoo.” Most zoo animals are captive-born, she explains, which is important because zoos are not interested in plucking animals from the wild.

“There’s been a huge continuing effort to assess where we can make improvements and continue to provide top animal care. What does this animal experience in the wild? How much of that can I provide in this setting or their exhibits? And if something is missing how can I still elicit a particular response even though I have a limited amount of space, or a limited amount of water? That’s the fun challenge — to always be thinking of how you can provide your animal the opportunity to go through the behaviors in the zoo. It makes for a happier animal, I think, because they’re using their entire brain.”

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Enrichment can be scent-based, such as adding cinnamon to food to make it different and interesting, or habitat-based, such as changing a perch location or adding a mister to an exhibit to create a rain shower. “The public doesn’t notice, but the areas may be different than the day before,” she notes. Fish typically get enriched once a week, while primates or the great apes might receive enrichment three times a day.

“If you suddenly stop enriching the polar bears, for example, they’ll start pacing or showing some other behavior. Some animals are enriched every day and yet every time I come by they just want to bite me. But that’s okay. I know they’re getting what they need.”

Species survival

Laura Riesse’s job also involves care of the zoo’s ecosystems. Here, she waters foliage inside the Tropical Rainforest Aviary as macaws look on.

The animals at the Henry Vilas Zoo are part of a North American Species Survival Program (SSP), Reisse explains, where zookeepers, curators, and managers throughout North America volunteer their time to keep track of animals  — when they’re breeding, dying, or being moved. “For example, we might look at the genetic makeup of all orangutans in the U.S. We don’t ever want to take another one from the wild, so we have to keep the family lines strong through breeding.”

These SSP programs, run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, operate throughout North America for any animals or creatures — even snails. Similar networks exist around the world.

To facilitate breeding, zookeepers provide animals with appropriate nesting materials, but in the Madison aviary most birds are not in breeding pairs. “We have a lot of same-sex groups,” Reisse says. “We are urging our ducks to breed, and we think there’s a pregnancy now among our marmosets, but it’s a guessing game. There’s nothing stopping them from having babies.” The last marmoset babies were born during the 2012 Summer Olympics and appropriately named Phelps and Lochte.

Henry Vilas Zoo’s zookeepers are paid hourly and work every day of the year, but the schedules are staggered to allow alternate weekends off. “We’re lucky here,” Reisse says. “I’m challenged, I have room for growth, I can do research, network with other zoos, and learn about animals.

“The public might just think I’m picking up poop, but I choose to do this!”

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