By Sarah Naron

Messenger Reporter

LUFKIN – After an internship at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose and an eight-year stint at the Dallas Zoo, Lufkin resident Ashley Orr now spends her days working as a zookeeper at the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin.

In the Sunday, March 11 edition of The Messenger, we took a look at some of the animals Orr has worked with over the years, including rhinos at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. At Ellen Trout, Orr is responsible for caring for animals such as birds and small primates.

Here is Part 2 of “A Day in the Life of a Zookeeper” as we continued to shadow Orr for the day:

According to Orr, the zoo recently rescued a raccoon, which is currently in quarantine.

“She’ll be coming to my section,” Orr said. “So, while she’s in quarantine, I’m going to start husbandry training with her – like scale training, crate training, ‘let’s check your body and make sure you don’t have any boo-boo’s.’”

The raccoon will also undergo injection training.

“That’s really a big one that zoos are moving toward now, is voluntary injections so you can give them their vaccinations and stuff every year without the drama,” Orr laughed. “And that’s asking a lot of an animal – ‘Here, let me poke you with this needle.’ Anybody who’s had children or have gone themselves for vaccinations is like, ‘That’s really hard.’”

Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin recently rescued a raccoon, who is currently in quarantine. She will eventually be assigned a new habitat in zookeeper Ashley Orr’s section of the zoo and undergo training. Photo by Sarah Naron /Messenger.

Successful injection training, Orr explained, requires a great deal of trust between the animal and its keeper.

“You build up that trust with much simpler things, like target – that’s one of the first things we train animals to do most of the time, and that’s just basically, ‘Touch your nose or touch your hand or touch some body part to this stick. A lot of times, it’s, like, a stick with a ball on the end.”

Once the animal exhibits the desired behavior, he or she is provided with a treat to reinforce it.

“You asked them to do it, they did it, you pay them,” Orr continued. “Over time, they build trust (that) you will always pay them. You will always take care of them for doing what you asked them to do.”

As trust is built through training exercises, the keeper moves from using sticks to using a syringe to better prepare the animal for the experience of an injection. The animal is rewarded once again, instilling the idea that “the syringe means good things.

“And then, you put something poky, but blunt on the syringe, like a dull paper clip or something,” Orr explained. “’Let me poke you with this. Yeah, that was a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay. Let me pay you some more for that.’”

Following the use of the paperclip is that of a blunt needle before the animal is exposed to a sharper needle.

“They’re like, ‘Ow, I don’t really like that, but you’ve never truly hurt me, and you always pay me. You always take care of me. You always praise me, you love me, so I can tolerate that little thing,’” Orr said. “And all of a sudden, you can give them those injections, and you take all the stress and drama out of it.”

Orr also pointed out the planned location of the zoo’s future gorilla exhibit, which will likely encompass roughly an acre of the property.

“They’ll have lots of space and climbing structures and really engaging things for them to do out there on that exhibit,” she said of the future residents. “And then, there will hopefully be another exhibit space that’s covered with mesh and then maybe a ceiling or roof also to keep rain and sun off.”

The zoo is also considering a “mixed species” exhibit, in which other primates such as mangabeys are housed with the gorillas.

“That type of mixed species can kind of enhance the life of both groups of animals,” explained Orr. “They’ve got somebody else to interact with. They’ve got somebody else kind of changing up how they use their exhibit space and somebody else to hang with and interact with.”

The exhibit is one which Orr is eagerly awaiting.

“There’s just so much you can do with gorillas,” she said. “When I left Dallas, I was participating in cardiac ultrasound training for the boys. Male gorillas – just like male people – tend to suffer from heart disease more than their female counterparts.

“If you can train these male gorillas when they’re young and get good images of what their hearts look like, then you can monitor them for their whole life,” Orr explained. “And if you can do that with voluntary cardiac ultrasound, they’re wide awake. You don’t have to sedate them to do this, so you don’t run those risks that come with that.”

In addition to training, one of the main responsibilities of a zookeeper is preparing meals for the animals.

As Orr pointed out in the midst of preparing a meal for the family of tawny frogmouths who reside at the zoo, providing exactly what an animal would hunt for and consume in the wild is not always a possibility.

“We have to find good, balanced options that are nutritionally comparable to meet their needs, but can actually be commercially available,” she explained. “So, chicks and mice are things that meet their dietary needs, but can be found readily available here in Texas.”

Many of the animals for which Orr is responsible receive meals composed of specific amounts of fruits, vegetables and specially formulated biscuits.

Orr explained that some animals, such as lemurs, can be particularly picky concerning how their food is presented.

“Lemurs don’t like it if you mix their grapes in with everything else,” she explained. “So, you must complete the diet and then put the grapes on top with everything else. That’s how lemurs like it.”

For Orr, choosing which animal is her favorite is challenging.

“I like them all – some for the same reasons, but many of them for different reasons,” she explained. “Rhinos were my first love, and it’s hard to say that they won’t always be where my heart is. It’s hard to replace that once you’ve felt it.

“But I worked with little-bitty klipspringers – a tiny African antelope – and they’re super fun,” Orr continued. “And, making things better, they’re focal defecators, which means they only potty in one place. That’s a zookeeper’s favorite thing.”

Orr also spoke of her experiences with meerkats, which she described as “little troublemakers” and tortoises, “which are the most enjoyable to watch eat, because they have their little tortoise mouths and their little tortoise tongues, and they eat with such determination.”

From a training perspective, gorillas have been the animal which Orr has most enjoyed.

“When it comes to training them, they’re so smart, and the sky is the limit,” she said. “If you’ve got a good relationship with them, you can do anything.”

Orr also explained the distinction between a favorite species and favorite individual animal commonly formed by zookeepers.

“There are definitely individuals in each species I’ve worked with where it’s like, ‘Well, ibex are fine, but that particular ibex is the bomb. I love that guy,’” she chuckled.

“So, that is an impossible question to answer,” she said of the inquiry of which animal is her favorite. “I love them all.”

Another challenge of being a keeper discussed by Orr is relocating to cities which may be far away from family and friends. As she explained, however, coworkers typically bond as a close-knit group.

“You go through everything together,” she pointed out. “Those are the people – if something goes wrong – that you’re counting on to have your back. It’s a really unique work environment in that regard. Really, you have to be there for each other.

“And a lot of people do the same thing that I did as far as trying to find a zoo job,” she continued. “Most of us don’t grow up with a zoo in our back yard. If you want to work at a zoo, you probably have to go somewhere. I’ve worked with people from all over the country, and they’re all away from home and away from family. And that’s what you give up to do this, often. You have to go where the zoo is – particularly where the zoo is that will hire you.”

At the end of each day, despite its challenges, the job of being a zookeeper is one Orr thoroughly enjoys.

“My favorite part about this job is that it is so dynamic,” she said. “It’s always different every day. The animals present new challenges and new joys, and I get to do a little bit of everything.

“I am a zookeeper, and I also prepare their diets, and I also do maintenance, and I also do enrichment, and I also do training, and I also make improvements,” she pointed out. “I get to use all of those skills, and there is never a dull moment.”

According to Orr, the job is also one which provides a great sense of purpose.

“I feel like I get to make a difference,” she said.

Sarah Naron may be reached via email at snaron@messenger-news.com.