By Jessie Burchette
A group of students enrolled in a zoo keeper program have breathed new life into a chunk of Dan Nicholas Park.
Six Davidson County Community College students are spending 20 hours a week working in the Nature and Learning Center and Rowan Wildlife Adventures.
“It’s a shot in the arm. It’s exciting to work with new people with lots of new ideas,” said Bob Pendergrass, supervisor of the Nature Center and Wildlife Adventures. “To have six new people at one time, it’s a great boost for us in a lot of different ways.”
And Pendergrass admits that many of the animals may be a bit tired of seeing him and the regular keepers. They are excited by the infusion of fresh faces.
The students began working at the park in January. They work there all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays and half a day on Fridays.
It’s a mandated part of the Davidson County Community College course. They get no pay. They provide their own transportation and uniforms and get necessary inoculations. The college pays for liability insurance.
“It’s a first-class course, well thought out,” Pendergrass said. “They all have different interests. They have a lot of energy, a lot of questions.”
“They have a huge amount of enthusiasm; they feed off each other,” he said.
For Pendergrass and the staff, the six additional people are a godsend, both for them and the animals.
In addition to feeding and cleanup, the students are working on enrichment programs for the animals.
“When animals are in cages, they get bored just like people,” Pendergrass said. “They need something interesting to do.”
The students are coming up with creative ways to provide food, including scattering it around the habitats or enclosing it in some type of container. The techniques have been a big hit with the bears.
The students are in a bit of a competition. Two of the six will be selected for a summer internship program at Dan Nicholas Park.
On a recent cold and dreary morning, the students seemed ecstatic for the chance to work at the park and learn from the staff about the dozens of animals and birds.
“It doesn’t seem like school,” said Taylor Fox, 18, of Lexington. “It’s all been great.”
April Edmonds, 26, of Summerfield in Guilford County, graduated from Appalachian State University as a music major.
When she saw the advertisement for the zoo keeper class, “the light went on. All my dreams were answered.”
Brooks Long, 23, of Linwood, grew up on a farm with horses and cows. Once out of high school, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do
His father, Kevin, an agricultural teacher at West Davidson High School, gave him a brochure about the zoo keeper program.
He immediately submitted an application. He’s hoping to to go into wildlife rehabilitation in the future.
The best part for Long is working with the animals. However, he adds, “There’s not a worst part.”
Another Davidson resident, Edwin Blackburn also grew up on a farm. He had decided to be a mortician, but then he heard about the new program.
“Once it opened up, I jumped right in,” he said. “I’m glad to be here.”
On this morning, Fox and Heather Atherton, 34, also of Lexington, have just finished feeding the animals in the Stanback Petting Barn. The goats, sheep and other critters are sounding off.
Atherton, a native of Ohio, had wanted to take a zoo course for years. A wife and mother of two children, she’s delighted with her new extended family.
Kristen Phelps, a Salisbury High School graduate, is the lone Rowan student in the program.
Amy Shepherd, a longtime volunteer at the park is among those providing some helpful hints.
Among the advice: Watch out for the buzzards. From their lofty perches in the former bear cage, they have been known to vomit on their keepers.
Another tip: The bobcat likes to mark his territory, often targeting whoever gets near with a stream of aromatic urine.
So far, the students have managed to avoid the critter’s best efforts.
It’s part of the learning process.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jessie Burchette