Keeping wild things wild
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:26 p.m.
Depending on the day, Jonathan Miot could act like a caracal cat, capuchin monkey, or a hawk-headed parrot.
Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo Animal Day
What: Animal- themed activities and demonstrations from working dogs, pet adoption agencies and even local mascots.
Where: Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, 3000 NW 83rd St.
When: Feb. 23, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Admission: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and children; free for anyone with a Santa Fe College ID.
Usually, however, he just acts as director of the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo. Miot, who has held the post for two years, worked at Lincoln Park Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, Busch Gardens and Franklin Park Zoo before coming to Gainesville.
Aside from hundreds of wild, exotic animals, the zoo also houses Santa Fe College's Zoo Animal Technology Program, where students learn about animal care, habitat construction and how to interact with the public while they earn an associate's degree.
Although caring for endangered animals is much more nuanced and demanding than the standard dog, cat or gerbil, Miot says some similarities do exist.
“Just like your pets at home, these guys rely on you for everything,” he says. “Even more so, we're feeding and medicating, but we're also doing serious cleaning of their environments. You might pick up your dog's feces at home, but we're doing full-scale cleaning and refurbishing of their environments. It requires a lot of knowledge of not just the species and how the species interacts, but also the individual animals and what they prefer.”
Most importantly, according to Miot, zoo staff and students interact with animals as they would in the wild.
“It doesn't mean I get up in the trees and swing around with them, but I understand monkeys are more comfortable up there,” he says.
Instead of bringing the capuchin monkey to the ground to train or perform medical checkups, students learn to let the animals be themselves. In order to work with animals that live in cave-like spaces, this often means having them walk or fly into a specialized box or crate. This is the biggest difference between interacting with the zoo animals and his dog, Gypsy, Miot says.
“I'm a pet owner, and you almost try to humanize your animal,” he says. “You love your pet, you respect your pet, but you're working with your pet the way you'd work with another human. When we work with our animals, we're working with them as if we were their species.”
Instead of training zoo animals to shake hands or roll over, zoos train their animals to help their keepers. Miot has taught lions, tigers and elephants to present an arm or a tail for blood to be drawn. Santa Fe's caracal cat knows to get in a special crate to go to its veterinary exams.
Not only does the training keep animals' stress levels low, but it strengthens the bond or trust between animal and keeper. Even if the University of Florida zoological medicine veterinarians poked and prodded the caracal cat away from home, Miot knows that, if needed, the cat would go right back into the crate.
“If you work with animals in a positive way for long enough, they'll trust you and forgive you for some negative stuff,” he says.
Sometimes, the less attention zoo staff and students give an animal, the better. Such is the case with animals born at the zoo. A white-handed gibbon gave birth in late October, but staff has yet to get a close look at the baby. Miot doesn't expect zookeepers will touch the baby for almost a year.
“We don't want to raise the animals,” he says. “We want the animals to raise each other. We want the gibbon mom to raise her baby so that the baby gibbon will know it's a gibbon and not a person.”