Care of any animal, even a simple household pet, can become a hassle. But providing care for more than 300 species of animals from across the world? Things can become tricky.
At the Idaho Falls Zoo at Tautphaus Park a professionally trained staff tends to the varied needs of its unique residents on a daily basis.
While the zoo is open to the public from the spring through the fall, depending on the weather, care for the animals, and concern for their future, does not take a hiatus during winter.
Cats on the prowl
Dallas LaDucer is a zookeeper in charge of care for large carnivores at the Idaho Falls Zoo. In particular, LaDucer cares for the big cats, each of which has different needs and environmental concerns.
“With every species, we take into consideration how coldhearted and warmhearted they are,” he said. “So we have to come up with a protocol for each.”
Currently, the zoo is concerned about its big cat population — specifically lions — that inhabit its exhibit.
In the past year, the lions at the zoo have given birth to three lion cubs. However, the advanced age of the older lions has zookeepers concerned about future expansion of the exhibit.
“Because the mom and dad are kind of older animals, these three will be the last cubs they ever have,” LaDucer said. “But this was kind of a blessing in disguise that we had the three cubs instead of the single one.”
The older lions are 14 and 15 years old. LaDucer said that in “cat years,” that is getting old for these animals, hindering their ability to produce potential offspring.
“In the wild, a male lion may only have a life span of six to seven years, but that’s because he’s constantly fighting to the death with other lions to defend his pride, and the females might live a little longer than that,” he said. “But in the wild, there is no veterinarian, and they’re literally out there getting injured trying to eat and survive.”
For the Idaho Falls Zoo, however, its lion couple were able to take advantage of the care provided. That produced a few surprises along the way.
“We had a unique situation where one of the cubs born needed to be hand-raised, so the mom was able to breed again,” he said. “So we had two litters of cubs that were born within five months of each other, which if kind of unheard of in zoos.”
But time has taken its toll, and zoo officials are anticipating no further lion cubs for a period of time, with the mother lion reaching a point to where reproduction is unlikely. With this, concerns arise in the future as LaDucer only expects the lion cubs to be at the zoo for just over a year.
“After a year or so it will be up to the need for other zoo populations,” he said. “All these animals are considered valuable breeding animals, so they’ll be matched up with a mate at another zoo.”
The zoo maintains 10 individual cats from four different species, with snow leopards, a serval, and a tiger joining the lions. And attendees at the zoo should expect an active big cat exhibit when doors open this spring.
“They’re still very much cubs under their parent’s care,” LaDucer said. “They are going to be very, very active this summer. They’ll be out having a blast every day, and mom and dad can just relax and watch from the top of the hill.”
An attention to care
For 27 years, Dr. Rhonda Aliah has cared for the animals at the Idaho Falls Zoo. As the head veterinarian, Aliah has been responsible for making sure the animals are receiving the highest quality of care, no matter what time of the year.
“In the winter, when the zoo is not open for customers, we do most of our physical exams on the animals,” she said. “So every couple of years we rotate the animals, doing physicals and weights.”
Each species requires a different amount of annual care, but around the clock attention is paid to each animal.
“They are checked daily by their keeper, so if the keeper notices this animal is not eating as much as it did yesterday or its feathers are a little fluffy looking, then we examine the animals as needed,” Aliah said. “It’s the same way you would act if any animal had an issue.”
The Idaho Falls Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires strict care techniques for all its approved institutions. To keep up with this standard, and with the shifting environment throughout seasons at the zoo, care for animals has to be regularly monitored.
“Some of the animals come from areas that are much warmer, so they are placed in areas called winter housing during cold months,” Aliah said. “We have special buildings that are adapted for them to live during the winter in the right heat and humidity that’s required. So we keep a close watch on the right heat and adaptability that’s required.”
Sunny Katseanes, education curator for the Idaho Falls Zoo, said care for animal, and ensuring they are comfortable in a proper environment, is a key to operating a high-quality zoo. And Katseanes is hoping Idaho Falls Zoo is able to quell common misconceptions regarding animal care in these accredited facilities.
“One of the things we get hammered a lot with by animal rights activists is that ‘you don’t know how to take care of your animals,’ and ‘you don’t have a great vet program,’” she said. “I dare say that the animals in ours and any accredited zoo gets better care than your pet. People have eyes on them every day, all day long, monitoring them.
“The level of animal care in AZA-accredited zoos is something to really be proud of.”
With the quality of care for the animals at an all-time high, Katseanes is hoping the zoo will continue to provide wonderful education opportunities for patrons visiting when the facility opens its gate this spring.
“It’s just an exciting time,” she said.
Reporter Marc Basham can be reached at 208-542-6763.