Next time you're at the zoo, watch for ambassador animals roaming among the visitors

New center offers behind-the-scenes experience
Zoo's ambassador animals are on the prowl
Zoo's ambassador animals are on the prowl
Zoo's ambassador animals are on the prowl
Zoo's ambassador animals are on the prowl
Posted at 7:13 AM, Mar 20, 2018

CINCINNATI -- Visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden will get a surprise this spring when they turn the corner and head toward the Children's Zoo. 

The building formerly used as the zoo's nursery will be transformed into the new Ambassador Animal Center, where guests can get a behind-the-scenes look at an array of animals that meet and greet the public.

"We wanted to get the information out there about the ambassador collection because they're usually behind doors," said associate curator of animals and quarantine Amanda Chambers. "People have no idea how they live their lives. So we wanted an open area where people can see their training and enrichment and how we raise them."

For those unfamiliar with the program, Chambers explained that ambassador animals are raised and trained in a way to enjoy human interaction. She said these animals act as ambassadors for their species, going out for public encounters both on and off zoo grounds.

"It's part of the zoo's mission, getting people close enough to care," she said. "The hope is that these people will do something when they leave the zoo that's going to help these animals' counterparts in the wild."

Blue Indian runner ducks Flo and Indigo boldly explore while Cincinnati Zoo caretaker Amanda Chambers looks on.

In addition to longtime residents Lucy the bearcat and the wallabies, the center will feature a male and female tamandua (South American anteater), a pair of bat-eared foxes, and an area where staff will rotate ambassador newcomers in training. She said the space is currently occupied by two female blue Indian runner ducks that came to them as chicks. 

When they first arrived, Chambers said, the two sisters were shy and suspicious of everything, but after establishing positive relationships, caretakers gained their trust. She said that as with all ambassador animals, the ducks' level of contact was completely up to them. 

"For a while they wouldn't come out at all, and that was their choice," she said. "But now they'll come out and explore everywhere, they'll follow you around and look for food. So we want people to see that entire process."

Melanie Evans, animal keeper for the interpretive collection, said guests will be able to view ambassador animals' training. Currently she's working with female tamandua Isla, teaching her to hang from her tail and walk on her hind legs.

Melanie Evans, Cincinnati Zoo's animal keeper for the interpretive collection, rewards tamandua Isla for walking on her hind legs.

Evans said not many zoos handle tamanduas, since they have big sharp claws, making trust between animal and caretaker especially important. When she requests a behavior, she said, it's always Isla's choice to participate or not, and sometimes she'll simply say no. 

"So she obviously had her reasons for not wanting to do it at that time, and that's OK," she said. "So I'm going to ask her to do something else so I can still keep her confidence up and keep that relationship positive and make the training fun."

As part of daily enrichment, Chambers said, all the animals will have their turn to roam freely around indoors and interact with their caretakers. She said they'll display signs so visitors know animals are getting their exercise, training, enjoying private time or out walking. She said at various times keepers will be stationed outside to speak about the new center.

Chambers said the IT department will install an intercom so visitors will be able to ask questions directly to the caretakers.

"We want to share information, so even if we're in here working, you can explain the process of why you do what you do," she said. "We very much want open, transparent communication."

Cincinnati Zoo associate curator Amanda Chambers says signs will always fill visitors in on the ambassador animals' activity.

Chambers said seeing adult animals acclimate to humans debunks the belief that ambassador animals must be hand-reared to adjust. The goal is to always have babies naturally raised by their parents, she said, removing an infant only in the case of rejection by the mother or health issues. She said standalone nurseries have become antiquated, since caretakers now try to keep the babies in the same enclosure as Mom and Dad, as in the case of Fiona, the zoo's popular hippopotamus. 

"You want to keep the offspring as close as you can to their family unit so they're always going to recognize the smell, the sights, the sounds of their parents, and the parents can know the presence of the offspring as well," she said.

For visitors accustomed to seeing zoo babies in the front window of the building, Chambers said, the public will still get their share. Caretakers co-rear a number of ambassador animals after they give birth, including the armadillo, anteater and skunk. The mothers are so comfortable with their caretakers, she said, the animals freely allow keepers to interact with the babies. 

"We had the mom and baby armadillo in here and the mom's an ambassador animal, and every day the keepers would interact with her and her daughter," she said. "And again, everyone can see what we're doing and they can see how they're being raised. They can see the positive relationships and trust we're building that allows that ambassador animal the comfort and confidence to engage the public and be a representative for their species."