At The Conservators’ Center we host what are called “Open Compound Events” a few times a year in addition to our regular public tours, usually they revolve around a theme and take place over the course of a few weekends but on occasion there are one-off events as well. After Christmas we collect unsold trees donated from local farms and tree sellers and put together what we call “Tree Toss.” Seriously, a Douglas Fir is like cat nip to a 300+ pound African Lion. Similarly, in the weekends following Halloween we have a “Pumpkin Prowl.” Have you ever seen a tiger tear a giant pumpkin to shreds and then happily roll around in the scraps? Or how about a leopard jump up to catch a swinging gourd in her paws and tear loose the twine it’s hanging from? Well, you can at The Conservators’ Center Pumpkin Prowl.
I work, primarily, in our Animal Care and Education departments. Every weekend I volunteer my Saturday to clean up poop, haul buckets of water, prep and feed out meat, perform enclosure maintenance, and carefully observe our captive wildlife to assess their overall physical and mental health. After lunch I lead public tours and then do whatever else needs doing. It’s pretty much the best and most fulfilling thing I do and I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world, or tea in China.
Yesterday, 9 November 2013, was the second and final day of the 2013 Prowl. And it went really well. We had a great turn out, entertaining and engaging animals, and beautiful weather. As part of the regular Animal Care team, my job for Pumpkin Prowl was to assist the Animal Keepers and Enrichment staff in placing the pumpkins, gourds, and scented burlap enrichment in the enclosures for our residents to play with. We employ enclosure designs that have multiple shifts—a separate space that the animal can enter and be apart from the primary enclosure space so humans can enter for feeding, cleaning, etc without sharing the space with the animal—for each of our large predators and use a lock-out, tag-out procedure to keep the shift doors closed while humans are inside. We never share space with our large cats and it’s important to properly execute these procedures any time we go into an enclosure to place enrichment, feed, or clean.
Once each enclosure is prepped, double checked, and secured, we release its residents from their shifts to wreak havoc upon the unsuspecting pumpkins! This is what its all about. Leopards playing keep away, tigers drowning pumpkins, and wolves scent rolling gourds.
After the Large Compound is finished, we open up Small Compound—where our smaller predators like servals, foxes, and bobcats live—and allow the public to freely roam the tour path between enclosures to watch our residents play with their new toys. We have volunteers and staff members positioned in key locations who can answer questions and keep an eye out for traffic back ups or other problems. A few of us then start what we call our animal demos. We have several species on site and a handful of them are socialized as education ambassadors. A few of our servals, a binturong, some Geoffroy’s cats, and our wolf pack have specialized teams of humans that are highly trained and skilled in working directly with these individual animals, hands on. This is my favourite part of my job at The Conservators’ Center! I’m part of the team that socializes and works with our wolf pack.
This year, before joining my fellow wolf specialists, I took some time to fire off my camera and capture some of the animals engaging with their novel enrichment. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time behind my still camera in a while, which is a shame because I used to fill all my free time with my cameras. Part of my love of filmmaking comes from experiences I had as a teenager crawling, climbing, and running through abandoned buildings, construction sites, city streets, and forests framing unique shots and building a larger composition across multiple rolls of fujichrome film. That I can marry two of my most intense and fulfilling hobbies—wildlife conservation and photo/cinematography—together in a single day is a dream come true.