Go Behind the Scenes at The Naples Zoo

Our writer got the scoop (literally) on the inner-workings of The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens.

BY May 9, 2017

It’s 8:30 a.m. Aristotle is getting a pedicure, and Rosabelle is having a foot-moisturizing treatment. Bill is ever so precisely lining up rows of cheerios, cranberries and peanuts. Katrina and Eva are in rehearsal, looking stunning in fashionable black and white. Chef Matt and his assistant, Jocelyn, have just finished whipping up 100 gourmet breakfasts for room service. Meanwhile, Alexis, Daniel and 139 similar creatures in bright plumage are about to be released by their keepers from a big yellow transport vehicle into the Naples Zoo. And me? I’m raking shiny little balls of giraffe poop into a pile under the critical eye of Heidi, who is, in a sense, responsible for it.

All photography by Karen T. Bartlett

The only element that’s exactly as it seems is me. I really am inside the giraffe habitat taking care of giraffe business. As for the others: Aristotle and Rosabelle are not at the spa. In fact, they’re not human. He’s a screech owl and she’s a tawny frogmouth (an odd-looking owl-like creature). Both have appointments with resident veterinarian Dr. Lizzy Arnett-Chinn for their regular checkups and West Nile virus vaccines.

Possibly you guessed that Katrina and Eva are not runway models. They’re zebras, practicing backing their sassy hindquarters up to the fence of their habitat to receive their shots. It’s actually a fun game, once they get the hang of it, because treats and praise are involved, and it eliminates the stress of a hospital visit for routine services. Long before Dr. Lizzy came on-board, serious medical procedures involved off-site transport. (Are you picturing that time a 400-pound gorilla arrived at a clinic on a stretcher?)

Bill is not a monkey playing with his food. He’s very much a human, on his first day in Enrichment Central, where volunteers make colorful and bizarre treats and toys for the animals. Those bright-plumed wiggly creatures, also of the human species, are kindergartners at Golden Gate Elementary School.

Chef Matt really is a chef, of sorts (official designation: commissary keeper). But his final masterpiece of the morning, a farm-fresh fruit salad of juicy strawberries, melons, blueberries, grapes and bananas, is not headed to some posh donor breakfast, but rather to the Primate Island, exclusively for the red-ruffed lemurs, Ruby and Jacaranda. Their 1-year-old twins, Fred and George, get child-appropriate versions in small, bite-size pieces. One of their island neighbors, a ring-tailed lemur named Nick, is getting his fave: green peas on a bed of lettuce.

And finally, Heidi is definitely not a giraffe. She’s one of the hoof stock keepers, and while I’m on her turf, she’s the boss of me.

It’s been seven years since Gulfshore Life dispatched me, with a flashlight and a notepad, for an outdoor sleepover at the Naples Zoo. Tim Tetzlaff, of the zoo’s founding family and now director of conservation, provided an infrared night vision scope and personal guide service into the realm of hyenas and tigers in deepest, darkest Africa and other wild places. After dark, many unseen beings provided slightly unsettling nocturnal rustlings, skitterings, growls and screams. Around 2 a.m., the late, great Tsavo the lion woke up the neighborhood with his most impressive extended roar. It was exhilarating.

So when the same editor floats the idea for a fresh behind-the-scenes Naples Zoo experience, you can imagine who waves her hands and calls, “Me! Me! ME!”  

Primate keepers Erin, Krystal and Albert deliver food.

Not surprisingly, journalist sleepovers at accredited zoos now fall into the category of “Not OK.” In compromise, Marketing Director Courtney Jolly and Animal Programs Director Liz Harmon agreed to escort me over a few days—in broad daylight—through the inner sanctum of keepers, vets, staff and volunteers. It will be my final revisit to the zoo as we know it. Soon, $25 million in additions and renovations will begin, starting with a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital to replace the tiny metal shed that is more like a field clinic. That last time, I watched a surgical procedure in the adjacent venom room, where the visiting vet reattached a severed rattle to the end of a very ticked-off rattlesnake. I kept one eye on the snake, and the other fixed on the big red panic button on the wall beside me.

One of the vet’s assistants brings me out of my reverie: “You don’t get queasy at the sight of blood, do you?” Actually I do, but that’s overridden by journalistic pride in the quest for a Real Zoo Experience. As it turns out, Aristotle and Rosabelle are really cute, Dr. Lizzy is impressive, and I’m just fine with the fact that the assistant was joking about the prospect of blood. But afterward, as we head over to the enrichment shed, I mention that I’m disappointed in today’s behind-the-scenes hospital experience. I should have predicted what was to come in response. But more on that in a minute.

Enrichment Central: More Fun than a Barrel of Papier-Mâché Monkeys

Morning visitors to the zoo who pay close attention may see bizarre objects scattered about in the habitats—hanging from posts, tucked under rocks, on ledges or perches. “Enrichment” in zoo-speak means “a variety of sensory modalities that enhance a zoo animal’s experience: scents, tastes, colors, textures and shapes.” Enrichments stimulate animals’ curiosity and give them opportunities to do what they do in the wild, like claw, hunt and forage.

This enrichment shed is a craft hoarder’s heaven. There are tubes in varying materials, lengths and circumferences; piles of newspaper; string and garden hoses; paper plates and colored ribbons; cereal boxes; colorful plastic bottles; jar lids; bicycle wheels; discarded hardware; toys; and kitchen supplies.

Kris Gaffney with a papier-mâché monkey.

In the “finished” section stands a snack-food Medusa, a former kitchen mop interwoven with twisted pretzels. Who thinks up this stuff? That would be Kris Gaffney, the volunteer enrichment supervisor. She’s the brains and the brawn behind most of the artistic creations. Her adrenaline went into high gear, she says, when her family moved into a community that was still under construction. “There were all kinds of wonderful things in the dumpsters and around the site,” Kris says, “and I’ve always been handy with tools.”

By tools, this girl’s talking a home workshop with an enviable collection of power saws. She’s so into her craft that she sometimes blurs the lines between zoo and home. Dawn, a volunteer who also happens to be Kris’ daughter, pauses in her construction of a peanut tree, the likes of which nature never intended, to help put her mom into perspective. Pointing to a large, drunken assemblage of open-ended plastic and bamboo tubes dangling at odd angles from ropes and bits of chain, she says, “Show her, Mom.”

“That was my Christmas present last year,” Dawn continues. “Seriously. My parents stuffed my gifts into those holes. But on account of my not being an animal, they decided to make it more challenging. I had to get into it with one hand behind my back.”

Some of the enrichments are bona fide works of art, like the awesome monkey-in-progress by papier-mâché master Alan. If this one goes to a primate or another gentle creature, filled with a dry treat, it may come back for repair and re-use. If it goes to a big cat or a bear or, heaven forbid, a honey badger, not a chance.

Remember Bill, the cheerio/cranberry/peanut arranger? He now has mastered the sequence part and is lining them up at the edge of the comics page of Sunday’s Naples Daily News. He arranges, rolls and repeats until it resembles a long, skinny cigar. Then it gets braided with other rolls, maybe sprinkled with spice to properly bring out the cheerio/cranberry/peanut flavor, and sent over for the enjoyment of the show animals. 

While I’m exploring the treasure trove, a young guy in zookeeper garb swings by in his golf cart to see what’s new. He spots a wilting stalk of a banana plant that is embedded with peanuts leaning against the door. Pouncing on it like a tiger, he says, “Oh, Indie’s gonna like this!” And whoosh, he’s gone.

Me: “Who was that?”

Kris: “Oh, that was Albert, one of the primate keepers. He’s wanted a nice banana stalk for a long time, and I lucked into this one in the groundskeepers’ discard pile. Indie is one of the langurs on the Primate Island.

“One thing I can say about working here,” she adds. “You never have to wonder if you’re appreciated.”

She Wants an Experience; We’ll Give Her an Experience

A couple of mornings later, Liz has mischief in her eyes as we approach the giraffe enclosure, where keepers Heidi and Sarah are wielding big rakes. “Here you go,” Heidi says, proffering one. “This is your giraffe experience. Start raking at the fence and rake toward the center.”

Timber (front) and Jumanji ffeed from canisters stuffed with apple and sweet potato.

The giraffes have been shifted to their other yard while we work. “Shift” is zoo talk for moving animals to a different enclosure or island while the keepers clean the habitat, do maintenance and set up enrichments. Jumanji, the Dude with Attitude in the herd, glides back and forth about 10 feet away at my section of fence. I’m sure he’s in on the joke, because he’s definitely smirking. With those teeth and lips, giraffes can smirk better than just about anybody. But I can tell he likes me.

After about 15 minutes, my pile of black ping-pong balls is pretty pitiful. Honestly, it’s not my fault. I had a rabbit that could do better than that, and besides, the other ladies started before I arrived. So I take my camera and skulk over to Heidi’s more respectable pile. “Oh,” she grins, “so now you want mine?” Alas, I’ve failed Real Zoo Experience 101.

Heidi finishes the rake-up, reserving the excellent fertilizer for the grounds crew. Sarah moves on to the enrichment project, tucking apples and sweet potatoes deep into a few of Kris Gaffney’s famous tube canisters, now painted green and red, with giraffe tongue-size holes in the sides. Then she stuffs large rope bags (maybe crafted from a former hammock) with fragrant green hay and hoists them via pulleys to the tops of tall poles. The treasure hunt will be a delicious way for the giraffes to forage with their 18-inch-long tongues.

All this back-of-house medical, enrichment, habitat and meal prep has been going on for about three hours, and it’s time for the zoo to open. Right now there’s a pint-size princess, waist-to-toe in purple tulle, waiting with her grownup entourage as patiently as a 3-year-old on her birthday is capable of. And who would want to delay Her Royal Highness?

Jumanji and his buddies already have their eyes on volunteers Dave, Tinkie and Sandy, who are unpacking armloads of fresh romaine lettuce leaves for the zoo’s popular giraffe feeding experience. But the boys have one chore left. Like the zebras and other large animals, they’re in training to support their own health care by allowing the keepers to take blood, check for superficial injuries and give shots. One hoof stock keeper is on the platform with treats, and the other is below-decks with a pretend medical instrument. Today it’s a feathery brush. The platform keeper touches the giraffe’s nose, which is the “ask” to stand still. The below-decks keeper then brushes the hoof for a few seconds, and then presses her clicker, which means, “Thanks, well done!” The platform keeper rewards him with a treat, and his shift to the day area is complete. Now he’s off to explore that interesting new object on the pole that smells like apples and sweet potatoes.

Masamba keeps watch.

The lions also learn to lie quietly beside their own fence to give blood and receive care. But lest I give a wrong impression, I’m instead about to have a National Geographic moment, when Masamba and his mate, Shawnee, discover today’s enrichment. The faux animal hide cardboard box and beach ball-striped papier- mâché orb that I saw in yesterday’s enrichment shed (now filled with raw meat or maybe journalist scent) have been placed in their habitat.

“When the gate opens from their shelter into the yard,” Liz says, “have your camera ready. You have maybe 4 seconds. Say when.”

I said when, but that’s a joke. The gate opens, a blur of legs and tawny mane flash before my lens. Masamba springs to the first platform and tears into the ball, and is already on the second platform with his teeth sunk into the box by the time Shawnee arrives. Three seconds. Done. Shawnee does a quick recon to see if Masamba left anything inside. He didn’t. While she guards the ball, Masamba heads straight for me, practically eyeball-to-eyeball through the fence—and, no lie: He gives a big sniff. I KNEW there was journalist scent in there.


Indie has a snack at his spot on the shift island.

The best part of my week is stowing away on the small keeper’s boat to observe the shifting ritual on the Primate Island. Like the giraffes, the primates are trained to move from their respective residential islands to a shift island to allow for cleaning, maintenance and placement of enrichments. Being monkeys, their shift involves swinging across the water via ropes and pulleys, directed by the keepers’ hand signals. When each primate reaches its designated spot on the shift island, one of its favorite treats is waiting. 

My friend Albert and his fellow keepers, Erin and Krystal, know I’m on-board, of course. But the monkeys count heads on the familiar boat, and too many heads could mean to them that mischief is afoot. So, as directed, I scrunch down and try to be invisible. The primate gang eases out to the shoreline more shyly than usual. There’s Jambi the white-handed gibbon, Scanner the spider monkey, Gibson the buff-cheeked gibbon and Taylor the siamang gibbon. And look! There’s Albert’s special white langur buddy, Indie! 

So I end up having a pretty cool behind-the-scenes experience after all. I leave with one final thought: The sign on the door of the snake clinic (aka Reptile Den) reads: “Venomous Snakes: Knock First.” Hmmm. A most excellent idea, that.


More inside stuff

Zous Chef Speaks

Chef Matt McWatters (right) started as a volunteer at the Palm Beach Zoo. Whatever he had considered for his future went right out the window when he discovered the commissary.

“To me,” he says, “it’s the nerve center of the zoo. We get to know who’s coming in and who’s leaving … who’s having a medical procedure and may need a special diet … whose appetite is up or down right now. Sometimes I slip out to watch the animals receive their food, and see what they reach for first. That’s how I found out that lemurs are crazy about beets! Colorful meals please animals, just like us. Nobody likes the same old, same old, so I mix it up.”

While the produce comes in fresh daily from Oakes Farms, Matt’s freezer holds about 4,000 pounds of meat on an average day. And there are bones. Lots of bones. In case you’re wondering, no residents—not even pythons—get live food. The fridge is filled with containers labeled with animal names. Just before she packs up for today, Matt’s assistant, Jocelyn, adds a tub of fresh bloody meat destined for a red fox named Chaz. Yum.

Honey Badger Don’t Care

Only four zoos in the country have honey badgers, and the Naples Zoo—which houses Shani—is one of them. Why so few? Because honey badgers are hyperactive little tough guys that can dig or tear their way out of practically anything, at lightning speed. But the Naples Zoo has Shani’s number. His super-deep fence is embedded in concrete. (Note to self: Watch that hilarious YouTube video, “Honey Badger Don’t Care,” again. Note to readers: Contains profanity.)

That Siren: Maybe It’s Lightning; Maybe It’s Something Else

So if that siren you’re hearing is not the shrill song of Jambi, the white-handed gibbon, it could signal a severe weather alert, a fire, or a human or animal emergency. It could even be a honey badger escape … I’m just saying. In any case, if the siren sounds, humans are directed into the visitor center or one of the other safe concrete buildings, and animals go into their safe shelters until management signals the all-clear. If it’s a real animal escape, the staff is well-prepared with dart guns or real ones. If it’s a practice escape, only two people know it’s not real: the one who sounded the alarm and the person secretly designated as the pretend escape animal.

The Time-Out Corner

Dakota the Coyote has been sent to time-out. The zoo folks don’t call it that, but a struggle for dominance is typical when mature male coyotes share space, and the zoo’s two, Dakota and Gunther, have not been playing nice. Unlike wolves, Liz Harmon explains, coyotes are loners. Gunther and their female sibling, Maya, get along fine, but brother Dakota is the odd man out. Right now he’s sulking, but in the end, he wins. He’ll be relocated to another zoo for pairing with a mate.

Related Images: