David Whitley: Zookeepers become therapy humans to lonely animals

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Unlike a lot of people, Andre doesn’t worry about where his next meal is coming from these days. What’s bothering him is not having the usual servers.

Andre is a llama at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. Were this a regular spring, 50,000 people a month would be coming through.

Many would venture over to Barnyard Buddies to grab a handful of food pellets and hold them out to Andre. But this spring, Andre and his buddies just stand around looking for anyone to lend them a hand.

“It’s strange for them,” said Julia Krall, the zoo’s director of community of engagement.

Due to coronavirus, the community cannot engage. If you wander the zoo’s lush grounds off U.S. Highway 17 in Sanford, and all you hear are rustling trees and the occasional squawk of an exotic bird.

That doesn’t seem to bother residents like Tank the tortoise, but reptiles generally aren’t emotional types. Mammals like Big Guy can be a different story.

He’s a spider monkey with a love for performing. When he saw a visitor approaching last Friday, he jumped down from a tree and scurried to the plexiglass at the front of his habitat.

He looked at me and began scratching his head and sticking out his tongue. My wife often has the same reaction.

Boone is a cougar who likes to hide behind a big rock as visitors gather in front of his habitat. Then he’ll jump out, triggering a shriek zookeepers recognize clear across the park.

“Ahh, Boone got ‘em,” they’ll say.

Now Boone and other 350 animals have almost nobody to interact with. About 50 workers are keeping the zoo running. Krall said about regular 800 volunteers clamoring to come out, but coronavirus restrictions prevent that.

It’s hard to say the zoo’s residents are lonely, but animals are like people. They have routines and can miss the simple stimulations of a daily routine.

You’ve heard of therapy pets that help people cope? Zookeepers have become therapy humans.

One of them is Tracy Sorensen. She’s the Central Florida Zoo’s curator and registrar, and on Friday morning could be found waving a head of romaine lettuce at a couple of giraffes.

That job usually falls to a stream of visitors, who pay $5 to get their pictures made feeding Rafiki and Gage.

The giraffes often start with a “drive by.” They’ll traipse over, look down and walk on by, only to circle back for a munchie.

Sure enough, they even drove by Sorensen.

Sorensen’s love affair with animals began on her grandparents’ farm in Ohio. Her pets weren’t just the usual dogs and cats.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “horses, chickens, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, everything.”

Sorensen has spent the past 31 years getting tease, nuzzled and growled at by exotic animals. That’s the fun part of the job.

Then there have been countless morning doing chores like cleaning enclosures. Cleaning up after giraffes and elephants takes a special kind of career dedication.

“It’s not for they pay. It’s a passion,” Sorensen said. “Zookeepers are the hardest working, most passionate people I’ve ever known.”

Rafiki and Gage weren’t too passionate about the romaine, so Sorensen offered big slices of sweet potato. Rafiki’s long neck bent down and he gobbled up the tasty treat.

“Now we’re talking!” she said.

The residents at Barnyard Buddies weren’t nearly as picky. They rushed to the fence when I showed up.

It was flattering, but I don’t think they were particularly thrilled to see me. They just knew a human would soon be reaching into a bucket and offering them a handful of pellets.

Andre’s face lit up the most, and what a face it is.

It’s black, with a wide white streak running down to the nose. That nose and Andre’s upper jaw bend curiously to the left at the end.

His lower jaw curves right, and three big teeth jut upward, giving Andre arguably the world’s most pronounced underbite.

I tried to give some to Jake the alpaca and Dougie the goat, but Andre kept nudging his way to the front. This went on for about 10 minutes.

There was nobody in line behind me as I said goodbye. There’s no way to explain to a goat or llama why nobody else is showing up these days.

Sorensen and the crew of zookeepers are working hard to make their world seem normal. But if you’re a forlorn animal lover stuck in isolation, take heart.

Judging by the look on Andre’s face, the animals miss you more than you miss them.


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