By Carrie Schmeck
Winter Season at Turtle BayStory: Carrie Schmeck Photos: Bret Christensen
When nights grow long and Turtle Bay turns back the clock to shorten its operating hours, there is a sense of quiet among the park’s animal program. It’s almost as if it has slipped into winter hibernation where not much happens until the sun peeks out again.
Actually, says Sharon Clay, curator of animal programs, winter is an essential season. Don’t let the quiet fool you.
Also, very few of the animals truly hibernate, she points out. Instead, they torpor.
Humans would call torpor lethargy, or that consuming desire to play hooky and cozy up on a couch with a warm blanket and hot cocoa. For animals, torpor is triggered by the change in daylight and marks the onset of slow metabolism, weight gain and lots of sleep.
In the wild, torpor acts as a survival mechanism. Where food is scarce and hard to find, it makes sense. At Turtle Bay, where animals are ambassadors and foraging isn’t required for survival, countering the natural torpor process becomes a main focus, keeping trainers busy through winter.
Indeed, much time is spent monitoring diets, waking the animals and getting them out of enclosures for enrichment, training and play time.
Charts and checklists dot cupboards that line the animal department’s industrial kitchen, attesting to the fact that when the show is over, it’s not over for the staff.
Each of the 36 animals and flight of birds get weighed weekly to eschew weight gain, and spreadsheets outline who gets what food, how much and how often. Changes in weight or eating behaviors are scrutinized, sending Clay and her staff back to the kitchen to reevaluate and adjust proportions.
Besides dicing mice, dishing out crickets and chopping radishes, the staff uses the winter to operate what looks like an animal daycare center, where colorful bins overflow with stuffed toys, shaped blocks, ropes and balls.
Called “enrichment,” Clay explains that, like people, animals have been shown to be healthier when they keep their minds active. For those like Spike the porcupine, who Clay says sleeps like a teenager on a weekend morning, offering something fun to do makes all the difference in their willingness to participate.
Staff play hide-and-seek games with food, trade out cage toys, and even help some paint, as Nashi the raccoon has been exploring, using real paint brushes and colored tempura paints. Her early efforts are nothing short of what one might expect from a raccoon, but Clay is optimistic that Nashi’s skill may help eventually fund bits of the animal program.
Along with feeding and enrichment, there seems a never-ending list of husbandry details to attend—add new perches, fix enclosure fencing and, of course, clean up. This winter, crews are working on a new 20x30-foot fox exhibit that will feature climbing equipment, den boxes and a closer connection to nature.
Winter is also the best time to capture new animal behaviors for summer shows. Loki, the red fox, is learning to pounce on cue and his practice looks much like dog school, with hand and voice cues, reward treats, patience and a healthy dose of pure devotion.
While pouncing looks like a trick, it’s really a behavior foxes use in the wild to capture rodent fodder. “Any training we do here must mimic natural behavior,” Clay says.
For the public, Turtle Bay’s animal program serves as educational entertainment while for the staff, animal science and wildlife preservation is both life passion and serious business.
The western pond turtle, for instance, is a threatened species due largely to pet turtle releases. A common culprit, the red-eared slider, grows bigger and is more aggressive than native turtles and has caused a dangerous imbalance.
The staff was chosen to work with the San Francisco Zoo and Sonoma State University on a turtle conservation project where they will raise a bale of native turtles for eventual release. As participants, they will collect and report data to aid in the species’ recovery.
They’ve used the off-season to build a turtle pond exhibit where one red-eared slider lives among several western pond turtles to help visitors understand the differences and consequences of an upset ecosystem.
When spring comes, staff will help the animals slim down and put finishing touches on their shows. For the animal handlers, who also look forward to sharing their work with the public, sunny days usher in an interlude to their brightest season.