Caring for animals is a team effort at Utica Zoo: 'We have an amazing team here'

·4 min read

Zechora is a 7-year-old Hartmann’s mountain zebra that recently made her way to the Utica Zoo after she was relocated from a zoo in Orlando, Florida.

Like most Florida transplants, Zechora is acclimating to the cold and snow in the northeast.

She was kept in a heated barn as she quarantined for 30 days – following procedure –after her arrival in Utica in November.

Zechora has ventured out into the snow, but would rather spend her time indoors, where it is warm, said vet techs Jackie Gregory and Nicole Blance.

“She is looking up, [going] 'What is that?'” Blance said about Zechora’s first interaction with snow a few weeks ago.

The two vet techs were recently able to coax Zechora out of her barn by bribing her with snacks, including bamboo and carrots. Zechora did not stay out in the cold that long, however, immediately jumping as if she saw a spider and trotting back inside almost as soon as her hooves hit the snowy areas in front of the barn.

Zechora seven-year-old Hartmann’s mountain zebra, eats bamboo leaves outside in the snow. She was just transferred to the Utica Zoo from Orlando, Florida.
Zechora seven-year-old Hartmann’s mountain zebra, eats bamboo leaves outside in the snow. She was just transferred to the Utica Zoo from Orlando, Florida.

Medical care

Gregory and Blance are the only two vet techs working at the Utica Zoo. They are joined by a veterinarian and keeper staff who all work together to keep the animals happy and healthy.

Utica Zoo Executive Director Andria Heath said the zoo normally has about 13 employees on the animal care team, though there are currently some vacancies.

The zoo employs 30 people, thereby making the animal care staff about a third of those at the zoo, Heath said.

The animal care staff also includes a deputy director of life services, a newer position at the zoo, Heath said. The person in this position helps oversee all animal care, Heath said.

“We have an amazing team here,” Heath said.

Altogether, the animal care team cares for the welfare of 200 animals of vastly different species.

It all starts with the zoo keepers, Gregory said.

The keepers spend the most time with the animals and know their habits. If there is anything out of the ordinary, the zoo keepers report it to the vet techs, who keep an eye on the animal and can call in the veterinarian, if needed.

“They’re the first one to know what their normal is,” Gregory said of the keepers and their interactions with the zoo animals.

The vet techs keep track of annual exams and vaccinations, help with preventative health care and provide what care they can.

Gregory and Blance also provide checkups on some of the smaller, less dangerous animals at the zoo.

Recently, one of their patients was Winston, a blue tongue skink that sat peacefully in their arms as he had his nails, eyes and nostrils checked.

The exams also help to make sure there are no parasites or other possible health issues.

Veterinarian visits

Dr. Ellen Hilton is the staff veterinarian at the Utica Zoo. She typically visits the zoo at least once a week and is on call for emergencies.

Dr. Ellen Hilton, staff veterinarian at the Utica Zoo, prepares to check on a ferret in the treatment room. Hilton typically visits the zoo at least once a week and is on call for emergencies.
Dr. Ellen Hilton, staff veterinarian at the Utica Zoo, prepares to check on a ferret in the treatment room. Hilton typically visits the zoo at least once a week and is on call for emergencies.

Hilton, who practices at Beaver Meadow Veterinary Clinic in Barneveld, specializes in small animals and exotic pets.

Though there are similarities between caring for a pet versus a zoo animal – same type of feline medicine for a cat and a lion, though the amount changes, for example – there are major differences.

“It’s a different decision making,” Hilton said.

For instance, Hilton said she can be more hands on with cats and dogs, something she cannot do with some of the zoo animals.

Hilton was hands on with some of the zoo animals during a recent visit. She was handling two older ferrets that were due for a physical exam.

Masks and gloves were needed for the exam, as the ferrets are susceptible to COVID-19, Hilton said. The Utica Zoo is on a list to get a COVID-19 vaccination for zoo animals, Hilton said.

Part of Hilton’s duties is to ensure quality of life for the animals.

Hilton, along with other zoo officials, recently had to make the heart wrenching decision to euthanize Sherlock, a 14-year-old red fox that was a favorite among staff and visitors.

Sherlock was suffering from advanced kidney disease and there was nothing else they could do, Hilton said, noting red foxes typically survive for three to four years in the wild.

“He lived a long life,” Hilton said.

Ed Harris is the Oneida County reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Ed Harris at EHarris1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Observer-Dispatch: Utica Zoo uses team effort to take care of animals

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