Still and silent. Cold and clear. The Conservators Center after a snowstorm resembles an elaborately tiered wedding cake frosted with powdered sugar icing and decorated with miniature, clandestine animal figurines. African Serval Cats, spotted with dark patches of fur and dusted with a sporadic layer of pure white snow, timidly peak their damp noses out of straw tunnels as they hear the Keiko-mobile attempt to gain traction in the freshly fallen snow. No doubt the warm-weather cats are debating about venturing out into the cold, sticky white stuff that has suddenly transformed their lush, grassy jungle from a safe oasis into a frosty and unfamiliar wasteland.
“Where is my pond,” Lena wonders as she aimlessly paws at the surface of the icy hole in the ground. “And where did my treat go?” Mojo asks when the ball of ground beef I toss to him misses his gaping jaws and disappears in the fluffy white abyss, never to be seen again.
We all had some adjusting to do in light of the sudden winter weather that graced North Carolina with its harsh and unexpected presence, not to last more than a week, but leaving behind an impressive and unforgettable legacy. As the brave keepers and interns don their winter layers and brace themselves for what’s to come on the morning of the inaugural snowfall of 2017, we all heed the wise words of one of the Centers’ respected leaders.
“Be careful out there. Pace yourselves. The job of a keeper is rigorous and unforgiving. The animals need you, now more than ever. Go to them. Care for them. And then care for yourselves and each other. That’s the only way to make this work sustainable. Good luck.”
Traversing blindly into an un-cleared animal compound, be it large or small, in the aftermath of a winter storm is one of the most terrifying, important, and rewarding parts of my job as a keeper. The ability to retain a level head and pay close attention to minor details such as lock security, enclosure durability, and potential environmental hazards amidst a forebodingly gray and dreary winter sky and the goofy antics of large, carnivorous animals exploring their new, snowy territory is essential for a keeper working at the Conservators Center. One moment of distraction watching Freya Tiger stalk, crouch, and LEAP with giddy ferocity at Arthur Tiger and we may have missed the broken limb teetering precariously above the door to Kira and Arthur’s enclosure.
But we don’t let that happen. Careful training paired with a poignant understanding and deep respect for the dangers inherent in working with captive, carnivorous wildlife keep the Animal Keepers at the Conservators Center on our toes at all times. Yes, we enjoy and celebrate the antics of our goofy, one-of-a-kind animal residents when the opportunity presents itself. But our guard is never truly down, and it is that constant diligence that keeps us, our fellow staff, the public, and our beloved animals safe and happy, always.
Briana Halliwell, Keeper