ATASCADERO - Frequent visitors to the Charles Paddock Zoo got to experience something new on Veterans Day weekend as the Zoo celebrated what organizers hope will be an annual Fall Family Harvest Day, on Nov, 10.
The Zoo’s Slender-Tailed Meerkats, Sarah and Andraria, got an unusual “enrichment” treat as visitors and volunteers carved pumpkins with various vegetables to be placed in the animals’ glass and concrete enclosure.
After Halloween, the Zoo found itself in possession of a surplus of pumpkins, thanks to a donation from Templeton-based Jack Creek Farms. That supplemented the regular produce they get from Berryman Farms, said the Zoo’s new full-time educational coordinator Melinda Mathis
On the job since August, Mathis came from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. After six years there, she said, she’s really enjoying the more intimate environment of the smaller facility in Atascadero, and chance to get to know the public one on one.
After the donation, she added, they came up with the idea to have kids carve Fall vegetables in a fun event while getting a lesson as well. All creations had to be run by the zookeepers though to make sure they were safe for the animals to interact with.
“Have to make sure the holes are bigger than meerkat-head-size,” explained zookeeper Jocelyn Katzakian. One of three primary caregivers for the animals, Katzakian is used to such unorthodox units of measurement, meeting the needs of rare and endangered species.
While the meerkats made ideal candidates for the impromptu feeding, very intelligent and interactive little guys, or in this case gals, centrally located and more accessible than other exhibits, Katzakian added that the small carnivores belonging to the mongoose family were more interested in the grubs she placed in the gourds than in the veggie-enriched Jack-O-Lanterns.
The meerkats are an example of a perfect animal for children to become acquainted with at a zoo, and really nowhere else, she added, when asked if people keep them at home.
“They’re highly illegal to have as pets,” Katzakian said that, like most of the animals at Charles Paddock, “we have to have special permits to keep them and they’re a threatened species. It would be pretty catastrophic if they got out.”
That’s because the little critters native to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and of South Africa, love to burrow, dig and climb, and as shown by their enrichment activity for the day, are quite persistent foragers. The smooth glass walls of their enclosure and 3 feet of concrete on all sides keep them in an Earthbound-open air terrarium.
Depending on the age range of her audience, Mathis explained Zoo events give her a chance to educate about such basics as what makes a mammal a mammal, to what some of the critters here eat in the wild when they’re not getting locally grown produce. A lot depends on the age of her audience for the day. High schoolers may join her for more advanced biology and zoology courses.
The Nov. 10 event was $15, up from the regular adult admission at the door of $7, but that included all the materials and staff time for the activities.
Most of the children who came out for the morning were regular visitors with family passes though, examples of the ongoing community relationships that Mathis said she wanted in taking the job here.
Volunteer Brooke Hatcher, retired after a 40-year career in recreational therapy concluding at Atascadero State Hospital, has been building a lot of those local ties as well since she started giving her time to Zoo activities.
Hatcher, who lives a short way away, said she’s learned a lot about the animals some of whom she used to hear from her home without knowing the source. She gave a quick tour of some of the other exhibits and a look at what’s to come as construction progresses on a new Red-Panda exhibit.
Animals were just warming up for the day after the first hard freeze of the season the night before, but the Zoo’s resident Tiger took time to “chuff” with Hatcher as he paced in the enclosure she said was much improved with jungle grasses and more inviting than the first time they’d “met.”
“They’re making steady improvement as they go,” she said, explaining her support of the local institution. “It’s really remarkable what’s being done on 5 acres when you think about that there are much bigger private facilities that do less.”
Something she wants visitors to understand is that, while she enjoys the “fun and games” of the recreational activities, they’re a means to an end, animals come to the Zoo as part of a much broader international infrastructure and the needs of their “species survival plans.”
“It’s a really wonderful place to come and get away and to explore,” she adds.