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Zookeeper cares for animals, educates public

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Andrea Cole enjoys coming to work each day. She has had a love for animals since she was a kid, so her job today as a zookeeper is a perfect fit.

Cole has been the lead zookeeper at the city-operated Spring River Zoo for almost two and half years. However, she has been working at the zoo in various roles for the last nine and a half years, so it is understandable that it sounds like she is describing family when she talks about the animals under her care.

She refers to relationships. She points out different personalities. She speaks fondly of certain animals she has taken the lead in raising from when they first arrived at the zoo as babies.

“I love their personalities,” Cole says. “Every animal has a different personality.”

And with Spring River Zoo being home to 184 animals representing 59 species, that’s a lot of unique personalities to look after.

Like the pair of coatimundis, or coatis, named Laverne and Shirley. “Laverne is very bold and sassy and will do whatever she wants,” Cole explains. “Shirley is a little more shy. She’s sweeter of the two.”

The zoo’s two bears also show off some contrast, Cole notes: “Sierra loves the water and she’s got such a funny personality, whereas Ursula is more huffy. She likes to hit the door and scare people and then she just sits back.”

Then there is Arthur the badger. Cole says it is worthwhile spending a little time watching him enjoy the simple pleasures of life: “He’s so fun to just sit and watch. If you give him a bowl, he’ll entertain you for like 30 minutes, playing with the bowl, flipping it around and shoving his head in the sand.”

“We build such relationships with them,” Cole says of the animals at the zoo. “They see us coming. They’re excited to see us coming. It’s not always just about the food for them. It’s the social interaction, just talking to them, it means so much to those animals. They get excited to see us and the things that we do for them, the enrichment (activities). Just making the animals happy is a huge thing.”

The enrichment she refers to involves placing items in the animals’ enclosures that promote “species-specific behaviors” by encouraging the animals to engage in activities that require physical dexterity and provide mental stimulation. Those items designed by the zookeepers are things such as a barrel with food in it that the bears can work on to get the food out, or for some of the smaller animals, a log with bugs inside.

Spring River Zoo Lead Zookeeper Andrea Cole introduces a miniature horse to a couple of youngsters during this summer’s Kritter Camp. (Submitted Photo)

Cole, a Roswell native who grew up raising animals in 4-H, worked her way to her current supervisory role, overseeing the zoo’s three other zookeepers, after coming to the zoo as an intern for two summers while she was in high school and then landing a job on the zookeeper staff following high school graduation. She spent five years in that position before being named lead zookeeper in March 2017. Cole received a lot of on-the-job training when she first arrived and these days regularly takes online college-level courses offered by the Zoological Association of America and other organizations to further her knowledge, skills and professional status.

“She was a quick study,” Spring River Zoo Director Marge Woods says of Cole’s initiation as a zookeeper. “She was an easy one to train.”

Cole says her job requires her to be a “jack of all trades,” from feeding the animals and preparing the enrichment activities to mowing in the exhibits and fixing fences. She also must train animals to do things such as go calmly into a crate so they can be moved from one area to another if needed or get on a scale used to monitor animals’ weight as part of maintaining their health.

Sharing her love for animals with other people is also an enjoyable part of the job for Cole. She is always ready to answer zoo visitors’ questions, which gives her a chance to educate people about the animals and the importance of conservation. Cole has created and leads kids programs at the zoo such as this summer’s Kritter Camp. The programs are “a good place to teach these kids about the animals and why they are important to the environments that we have,” Cole says.

It is also important, Cole notes, to remind people that although the animals they see are in a zoo, many are still wild and can be unpredictable and dangerous if not handled with proper respect and precaution, something the zookeepers must always remember in order to help ensure the safety of the staff and visitors.

“People think we play with the animals,” she says about some people’s perception of zookeepers, adding that while she and the other zookeepers care for and do fun things for the animals, “we don’t go cuddle the bears.”

Cole does have special relationships with some of the animals, such as Harley, the raccoon she raised when he was brought to the zoo several years ago at just six weeks old. He found his new home at Spring River Zoo after his mother was struck by a vehicle, leaving him an orphan. (It is a life story shared by many of the animals at the Roswell zoo. Others arrived after being injured, leaving them unable to survive in the wild). Someone found the little raccoon and brought him to the state Department of Game and Fish. Soon after, Harley was at the zoo under the care of his adopted human mom. Since that experience, raccoons have remained Cole’s favorite animal.

Woods appreciates having Cole as her second in command.

“I couldn’t do this without her,” Woods says, pointing to Cole’s important responsibility of supervising and planning the work of the zookeeper staff. Woods says Cole and her staff “have a passion” for what they do in caring for the animals and play a key role in constantly improving the zoo.

“To see someone love the business and love animals as much as I do and want to see this place succeed is so important to me,” Woods said in speaking about Cole.

Cole wants people to know the zoo “is a fun place to come and we do a lot for the animals.”

“We all want this place to succeed,” she says. “We do everything we can to make it better for the public. But also make it better for the animals in every aspect we can think of. We’re here to take care of them and give them the best lives they can have.”

Todd Wildermuth is public information officer for the city of Roswell.