Thursday, August 25, 2011

Worth the Trek

Last week a couple of my fellow zoo staff from the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater took a trip to visit our sister facility, Northwest Trek, in Eatonville. It's a bit of a commute, but the drive is immeasurably more pleasant with good company. 

The forested grounds at the wildlife park provided just the right amount of dappled shade for the warm August day, and despite the high attendance, Trek's wide pathways and spacious viewing areas felt open and uncrowded. First we strolled through Cat Country where a lynx quietly stalked something (imagined) and the most active event at the cougar exhibit was a yawn and a stretch. But what a yawn! The coyotes trotted around to greet us, as did a red fox, but the wolves just eyed us lazily from atop their comfortable napping spots.

At the grizzly bear exhibit, we stood wide-eyed with mouths agape as the two bears snarled and swatted each other, one warning the other to back off from his den. I managed to capture a bit of this display on video.

Next it was time for our tram tour. Our tram was immediately greeted by a female caribou, who tagged along for the first few minutes of the ride, running alongside the tram cars. We also spotted all of the big horn sheep, (including the lambs frolicking!) the mountain goats, the elk herd from a distance, the dozy-looking bison herd and many smaller creatures such as swans, sand hill cranes and pond turtles.

 The highlight though, was seeing the sometimes elusive moose lounging right by the tram road!

Of course, I couldn't resist lingering at the bird of prey exhibits; the barn owls posed especially nicely in their faux barn habitat.

In the wetlands area of the park we saw snoozing porcupines, a sunning badger, and a very active wolverine. While we watched the wolverine bouncing around her enclosure, a man behind us declared, "Nasty animal!" My companions and I audibly gasped. The wolverine gets a bad reputation; they are fascinating, playful, intelligent and anything but nasty!

To wrap up our wetlands experience we were greeted by a curious fisher who sat perched on the end of a log just in front of our viewing area. If he could have spoken, I think he'd have given us a guided tour. We also came nose to nose with a raccoon, bobbed along with a beaver and witnessed an otter playing with a wreath of twigs the keepers had given him.

We also took a peek inside the Cheney Discovery Center where we were probably way more interested in the Western Toad than your average zoo-goer. But it was so fat and round!

After seeing all of the exhibit animals, we still weren't quite finished with Northwest Trek. Our last stop was the trailside encounter, led by two seasonal employees. This presentation featured a young beaver who walked (and swam) on a harness. she demonstrated several behaviors on cue, including grooming and opening her mouth to show her teeth. In addition to the sheer entertainment of watching a beaver swim, waddle, and chew on twigs, the trailside encounter offered an educational element. Questions like, "do they eat fish and aren't beavers mean, revealed visitors' ignorance regarding beavers, but the presenters handled all the questions in an engaging, conversational manner that held the audience's attention while dispelling myths and providing interesting information.

If you're looking for a place to take the family before school starts up, a place to take that special someone on an outing, or want an alternative to your usual weekend in front of the TV, visit Northwest Trek!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dog Training 101: Emergency Recall

Soon after the keepers at PDZA's Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater in Tacoma, Washington adopted Herald from the Humane Society, it became clear how he had ended up as a pound puppy.

Herald liked to run away.

This can be a problem with dogs under normal circumstances, even when they don't live at a zoo. Dogs who slip out the door unattended or sneak out under fences tend to be struck by vehicles, picked up by strangers or get into tussles with other animals.

Now imagine that the dog who has just ripped the leash from your hand is bolting toward a leopard enclosure, or making a bee-line for the North American porcupine during his training session. Whether he's loose in the neighborhood or loose in the zoo, your dog must be rerouted before he gets into a dangerous situation.

Fortunately, Herald the dog is very fond of chicken. To train his emergency recall, we started excitedly shouting, "CHICKEN!" whenever we had a bit of the cooked poultry available; then we fed it to the overjoyed canine. Soon, Herald would scamper from wherever he was in the building when he heard, "chicken." Eventually, he was dashing across the zoo's lawn or down the service roads as we practiced the recall, varying the time and amount of poultry given as a reward. If Herald got the notion to take off in the direction of the aardvark out on her walk, we just yelled the magic word, "Chiiicckkkeeeennn!" and Herald reliably charged back to safety. And to a handful of poultry.

This little trick isn't only useful for dog owners; parents can use it, too. When my siblings and I were young, we had a babysitter, whom we called Aunt Jean. In retrospect, I realize that Aunt Jean had mastered the emergency recall. She was capable of emitting a blasting whistle, which, (no matter where we were on the expansive property) when it reached our little ears, prompted my siblings and I to drop everything and high-tail it back to Aunt Jean. This whistle was extremely effective because instead of poultry, we were rewarded upon our return with popcicles, fruit snacks, an old container to use as a new sandbox toy, a ride to the bank in the station wagon or any number of other reinforcing occurrences.

Aunt Jean also used the same recall for her golden retrievers. This meant that when the whistle rang out and all children and canines in the vicinity arrived panting on the doorstep, sometimes our reward was just dog biscuits.