Lessons are learned at Pet Day at the zoo

A Santa Fe Zoo keeper holds up a Red Rat Snake for children to touch during Santa Fe College's Animal Appreciation Day, emphasizing responsible pet ownership on Saturday, February 23 in Gainesville, Fla.

ASHLEY CRANE/ Correspondent
Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 8:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 8:18 p.m.

Just past the entrance to the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, zookeeper-in-training Annie Rogerson extended her arm to a small cluster of children. Twined around her wrist and forearm, periodically twitching, was an orange and yellow snake. The children regarded it warily.

It's Pet Appreciation Day at the zoo, and even the slimy animals deserve some love.

"Two fingers," Rogerson says, inviting the children to touch the snake's marbled skin. Alex Loret de Mola, another zookeeping student, hovers nearby with hand sanitizer at the ready.

A brave child makes the first move, intently brushing his fingers down the snake's side. The rest follow suit. Students grin at each other as small cries of surprise follow.

"I love seeing the kids' eyes light up when they touch the snake," Loret de Mola said.

The teaching zoo, local adoption agencies and animal sanctuaries teamed up for Pet Appreciation Day to educate the public about responsible pet ownership. Booths were set up outside the zoo, where volunteers explained what kind of animals make good pets and how best to care for them.

For instance, Kathy Finelli, director of Gainesville Rabbit Rescue, said the best pet Easter bunny is not a living rabbit but rather either chocolate or stuffed.

Each year the Rabbit Rescue braces itself for another wave of live Easter bunnies. As gifts for Easter, children are often given rabbits, which are then abandoned before they reach adulthood. Finelli hopes to teach families that rabbits are a 10-year commitment and are for children more than 12 years old.

"(Pet Adoption Day) is great because of the kids," she said. "And it's a perfect opportunity pre-Easter."

The zoo, as well as organizations like the Lubee Bat Conservancy and Jungle Friends Primary Sanctuary, hopes to prevent exotic animals from being seen as acceptable pets. The Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo knows the effects of a human home: Eddie, the zoo's male gibbon, was once a pet.

When Eddie becomes too anxious, he displays behavior called "pretzeling," in which he wraps his legs around himself in a protective cocoon. Such behavior is unnatural and dangerous in the wild.

"The animals that have been pets first are especially tough to deal with," Liam Conroy, another zookeeping student, said. Luckily, the gibbon's two offspring are being brought up in as close to a natural environment as possible. A constant audience observed one baby gibbon roam freely, while the other clung to his mom as she swung herself across the enclosure.

Pet Appreciation Day also exists to get kids excited about animals. Willow Pagliara waited impatiently next to the Red Rat Snake. She wore a pink, tulle skirt and a blue T-shirt, and she shifted anxiously in tiny hiking sandals.

While the other kids hesitated to touch the snake, she dove forward, gently pressing her fingers to the snake's side.

As Willow accepted the hand sanitizer afterward, she looked up at Rogerson and Loret de Mola.

"I wanna work here someday," Willow said. "It looks very fun."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top