A Family of Zookeepers

Written by Memory Mays

Memory Mays

Normally the blogs that I write about involve Hoofstock baby announcements or fun facts about the animals I work with. This time this blog is going to be different. It’s going to be about people. Three people in fact. What better way to celebrate National Zookeeper Week than to talk about a family of zookeepers? Meet my family. There’s my mom, Phyllis, the manager of the Animal Nutrition department. And my dad, Stan, the curator of the Herpetology department. Then myself, a Hoofstock keeper. We all work at the Houston Zoo.

Stan Mays

Both of my parents have been working here for over 30 years! Within that time, they have worked with nearly every type of animal you can think of. Elephants, hippos, bugs, giraffes, sea lions, birds, snakes, frogs, apes, and goats. This list goes on and on. Growing up as a zookeeper’s kid, I heard all kinds of different animal stories from my parents and their experiences.

As a child of two zookeepers with not so normal schedules, I had to tag along to work sometimes. Particularly on weekends and holidays when day care centers were closed, but the zoo animals still needed food and care too. It’s these childhood memories that stand out the most. At a young age, what kid didn’t want to be a zookeeper? I always wanted to help out and pretend to be one. I was too young for my own set of keys and radio, but my mom would sit down with me and show me how to prep animal meals. We plucked pounds and pounds of grapes for birds, primates, and bats. We weighed out pellets and other kinds of grains for other animals too. We made popsicles for lemurs, antelope, pigs, and several different species.

Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays

I learned loads about snakes, frogs, and turtles from my dad and his position at the herpetology building. My dad would hand me a mini snake hook and show me how to properly handle snakes; of course, while using the fake stuffed animal snakes from the gift shops. To this day, I’m still fascinated by the herpetology world, particularly tortoises and Grand Cayman blue iguanas. However, my love for horses led to my love for the Hoofstock animals. I fell in love with exotic hooved animals even more when I became a Zoo Crew volunteer and spent my summers working alongside some great zookeepers.

It’s really no surprise that I wound up in the zoo world with that kind of childhood, right? I’ll admit, I tried a few other career paths like photography, and accounting, but I just kept coming right back to the zoo. I applied for and got the job as a Hoofstock keeper here five years ago. I consider myself lucky that I get to work at the zoo where I practically grew up with some amazing zookeepers. I’m even luckier that I get to share working here with my parents. Instead of just listening to their stories like I did as a kid, I now get to share and compare my own experiences with theirs.

Phyllis, Memory, and Stan at the Houston Zoo

Community Cleans the Beach for Wildlife

On Saturday, July 15, the Houston Zoo and Whole Foods hosted a beach clean-up at the Galveston Island State Park. About 60 guests came out to help clean, collecting 15 full bags of trash and 4 full bags of recyclable items! It’s important to keep trash off the beaches, and out of the ocean, to protect the animals living there. Thank you to these wonderful volunteers!

Written by Stephanie Krail, Marketing Intern

Photo Credit: Amy Blackmon

This was my first beach clean-up to ever participate in and I am so glad it was with the Houston Zoo. The first hour I spent cleaning up the beach with the other volunteers because I wanted to see first-hand what was out there and how the volunteers were reacting to it. We had volunteers of all ages helping to clean the Galveston Island State Park. I was thrilled to see that families with young children came as this is a great way to educate a child on the importance of recycling, using reusable items, and not littering. We all had a great time seeing what we could find. It was almost like a scavenger hunt, seeing who could pick up the most unusual items. We found everything from milk jugs to soles of shoes. But the most common item that we found was plastic bottle caps. We found over a thousand bottle caps in two hours. This really shocked me as bottle caps are something that we could use less of every single day. The use of reusable bottles not only reduces the numbers of plastic bottles in the ocean but also plastic bottle caps.

Sorting trash and recycling

The last two hours we spent digging and sorting through the trash that the volunteers collected. Another popular item was cigarette butts. This was really sad for me to find because not only is it littering but it can be toxic to a marine animal if they ingest it. I was so glad to do this with the zoo because they had so much information and facts about what all we were finding. They knew which plastics were recyclable and which things had to be thrown away as trash.

Overall, it was such a neat experience and I hope that the Houston Zoo continues to hold it. This is something that you could do without a huge group or budget, all you need is a trash bag and a few helpful hands! This experience helps you see just a sliver of the trash that is out on our beaches and shores and allows you to see that something as simple as using a reusable water bottle every day really can make a difference.

Most Found Items:

  1. Plastic Bottle Caps – 1,362
  2. Tiny Plastic Pieces – 761
  3. Straws – 137

Strangest Items Found:

  1. Shoes/Shoe insoles – 3
  2. Beach Balls (still partially inflated) – 2
  3. Bathing suit – 1

Campers Championing Conservation!

Every summer, the Houston Zoo welcomes over 2,000 campers into our summer camp program: Camp Zoofari.  These children spend a week learning about the Houston Zoo, its amazing animals, and all the ways we are working to save animals in the wild.  We wanted to increase our emphasis on conservation actions and engage our campers to feel empowered that THEY can truly make a difference, no matter how old they are! Thus the Water Bottle Pledge and the Trash Audit Program came into being.

It is no secret that summers in Houston can be brutally hot.  Staying hydrated is a must, especially for our campers.   Starting on Monday, the first day of the camp week, we start highlighting the importance of reducing plastic use.  One of the easiest ways we can do this is by using a reusable water bottle.  This helps marine life, like sea turtles.  On Wednesday, the middle of the camp week, we give the campers the opportunity to make a personal pledge:   to use a reusable water bottle through the rest of the summer to help save sea turtles in the wild.  If they chose to take the pledge, they are able to decorate a water droplet and then place it on the pledge banner.  This has been a huge hit with our campers so far this summer!  Each week, we get well over 100 pledges.  Campers point out the pledge banners to their parents and even ask to have their picture taken next to their pledge sign.

Another way campers are helping to save animals is through our lunch Trash Audit Program. Campers are quick to point out that recycling is important in helping to save wildlife and natural spaces. Toward this end, our campers are challenged each day to bring reusable lunch items when able, and to properly recycle when they cannot. Each day after lunch, the camper waste is weighed versus the weight of recyclable materials brought. So far, each camp week has increased their percentage of recyclable materials and on average are recycling 16% of what they bring for lunch. To assist in this effort, signs have been posted on the trash bins and recycle bins at lunch showing pictures of items that can and cannot be recycled. Campers enjoy matching their items to the pictures each week as they explore what can and cannot be tossed into the recycle bins!

Through these two programs, campers are making a difference for wildlife and demonstrating how everyone can make a difference! We encourage you to take on these challenges within your own home!


Female Baby Elephant “Joy” Born at the Houston Zoo


After a two-year pregnancy, the wait is over for Shanti (and all of Houston!). Yesterday at 8:27 p.m., the 26-year-old Asian elephant gave birth to a 305-pound female after a short labor, and the calf began to nurse within three hours. The calf has been named Joy by the team who have dedicated their lives to the care, well-being, and conservation of these incredible animals.

Baby elephants are quite wobbly when they’re first born, so the harness you see Joy wearing below lets our elephant team help her stand steady while she’s nursing.

Shanti gave birth in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat cow barn under the supervision of her keepers and veterinary staff. She and the calf will undergo post-natal exams and spend several days bonding behind the scenes, before they are ready for their public debut. During the bonding period, the elephant team is watching for the pair to share several key moments like communicating with mom, and hitting weight goals.

“Our animal team is thrilled that the birth has gone smoothly,” said Lisa Marie Avendano, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “We look forward to continuing to watch Joy and Shanti bond, and introducing her to Houston.”

This is an exhilarating summer for the elephant team. In May, the zoo opened an expanded elephant habitat which doubled the entire elephant complex and immerses guests into the lives and culture of Asian elephants. The new bull barn and expanded yard gives more room for this growing herd.

Just by visiting the Houston Zoo, guests help save baby elephants and their families in the wild. A portion of each zoo admission and membership goes straight to protecting an estimated 200-250 wild elephants in Asia. Since the Houston Zoo started its work in Borneo in 2007, there has been a doubling of the elephant population on the island. The Houston Zoo also provides funds for elephant conservationist, Nurzhafarina “Farina” Othman and her team in Asia, to put tracking collars on wild elephants. This group uses collars to follow wild elephants, conducting valuable research that aids in protecting the elephants as they travel through the forests. Farina also spends time working with farmers that grow and produce palm oil, offering her guidance in responsible cultivation practices that are wildlife-friendly.

Palm oil is an ingredient in many foods and cosmetics, typically grown in areas that were previously home to animals like wild elephants. Converting pristine forests into oil palm plantations has caused extensive deforestation across Southeast Asia.  Luckily, a growing number of producers are working to protect these areas and the animals that live there. The Houston Zoo encourages people to protect elephants in the wild by supporting companies that use responsibly sourced palm oil, increasing demand for palm oil that is grown and produced without destroying the forested homes of elephants.

Water: The Science Beneath the Surface Part II

This post written by Mike Fannin, Manager, Life Support Systems

What the heck do they do, anyway?  From filtration to chemistry, this blog series is a behind-the-scenes look into the Zoo’s most mysterious department.



As you may recall from Part I, Water Quality Department staff members were preparing to plant new floating islands in the CZ Koi Stream.  The islands were to serve a dual purpose:  1) they would provide space for plants that would help remove nutrients from the stream, and 2) they would house tiny aquatic invertebrates called amphipods.  Why?  To help keep our exhibit free of filamentous algae.

Planting and Launching Our New Islands – March 2017

Our three floating islands arrived at the beginning of the month.  Being science nerd types, all of us Water Quality folks were eager to open up the boxes and get these things planted!  They were made of a brown mesh (the material was very similar to a scrubber pad) and had a coating of buoyant foam on the bottom to help with flotation.   The island planter holes were pre-cut and were to be filled with a special soil.

We chose a selection of pollinator-friendly plants for our island experiment, mostly herbs like catmint, oregano, thyme and African Blue basil for the bees, but also included some Texas salvia, bee balm, and Cardinal flower for hummingbirds.  With the expertise of Jeff in the Zoo’s Horticulture Department, we got all three planted up and ready to go.  We kept the islands out of the Koi exhibit for a couple of days to water the plants, but with rain in the forecast they were ready to set sail!

Progress report – April 2017

Once the islands were in place we watered them by hand for a little over 2 weeks, just until the roots had a chance to start growing through the mesh into the stream.  After that they did just fine without us, but seemed to be putting most of their energy into root growth – there wasn’t much visible change in plant size since we planted them a month earlier.  We added a small group of amphipods to the stream during this time since we were seeing a hint of filamentous algae growth.  By mid-April another clean-up crew arrived… tadpoles!  Hundreds of them!  A few pairs of Gulf Coast Toads evidently found their way into the Koi Stream to spawn – thankfully these tadpoles are voracious algae-eaters.  Towards the end of the month, many of our island plants were in bloom.

Progress report  – May 2017

The islands are really picking up speed, although one of them is not doing as well as the other two… Horticulture is called in to investigate.  Jeff finds signs of mites and thrips, tiny arthropods that feed on plant juices and stunt plant growth.  Two of the islands are temporarily removed and sprayed with horticultural oil, a substance bad for small pest insects and mites but safe for other insects once it dries.  Meanwhile, more tadpoles have arrived (the last batch is long gone – Gulf Coast Toad tadpoles go through metamorphosis and turn into tiny toadlets in about 3 weeks).  Between the tadpoles and amphipods, the hair algae growth is kept at bay.

Progress report – June 2017

Here we are a little over three months later, and our islands are really filling in.  The plants are blooming and attracting many species of bee, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, and damselflies.  Just as we had hoped, the Koi stream is free of hair algae even in the blazing Texas sun.  Our biological one-two punch is working!  Now that the tadpoles are mostly gone for the year, we will add more amphipods to increase the current population and keep up the momentum.  Encrusting green algae are present on the sides of the stream, but this is perfectly natural in aquatic ecosystems.  Contrary to popular belief, a modest population of green algae is actually an indicator of good water quality.  This small amount of algae plus our thriving island plants are removing nutrients from the water faster than the fish are producing them, even though the fish are fed generously a few times per week.  Koi Stream water samples are analyzed monthly by our department; the water chemistry is not only excellent, it’s among the best in the Zoo.

Our main goal with this experiment was to achieve pristine water quality and clarity, and establish a healthy fish, invertebrate and plant community – we reached this goal faster than we expected, and with no chemicals added.  Of course we have an entire summer ahead of us, but we expect to maintain the health and beauty of the Children’s Zoo Koi Stream just by letting nature take its course.  We invite you to visit the Houston Zoo this summer and hang out on the Koi Stream bridge to check out our progress!

Stay tuned for more fascinating Water Quality blog posts!

The beautification of the Children’s Zoo Koi Stream is an ongoing team project between the HZI Water Quality department, Horticulture department, and Children’s Zoo husbandry staff.

Four Sea Turtles Treated at the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo provided veterinary care for four sea turtles on July 7. The four turtles were rescued by our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion (NOAA) in Galveston and brought to our Animals Hospital for care. All four have all gone back to Galveston where they will be rehabilitated by NOAA until they are strong enough to be released back into the Gulf of Mexico. 

We are so fortunate to have sea turtles in our Texas waters, and it is easy for us to all be sea turtle conservation heroes! A few simple actions taken by our community can help protect sea turtles in the wild:

1) If you accidentally catch a sea turtle while fishing, please call 1-866-TURTLE-5 so a biologist can come out and respond to the turtle-giving it adequate care and attention.

2) Switch from plastic grocery bags to reusable grocery bags-our plastic bags are light and fly away easily. They can end up in our bayous and float to the ocean. Sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish, and when ingested can make them sick.

3) If you eat seafood, choose ocean-friendly seafood! Download the FREE Seafood Watch app to use on your phone. It will help tell you what seafood is best to eat because it is caught or farmed in an ocean-friendly way that protects wildlife like sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks.


Pen Pals to Save Okapi: “How Do Zoos Help?”

Written by Mary Fields and M’monga Jean Paul

For this pen pals blog, we asked our conservation partner, Jean Paul from the Okapi Conservation Project, what he thinks about zoos. The first question we asked was, “What do you think of zoos and why are zoos good?” Here’s Jean Paul’s response:

Keepers Kendall and John talking to guests about how to help okapis in the wild.

Zoos bring people and animals together. By doing this, zoos have the potential to educate the public about conservation issues and inspire people to protect animals and their habitats. Zoos also carry out important research into subjects like animal behaviour and treating illnesses.”

Our second question was, “How do zoos help out animals in the wild?” His response was:

“Zoos protect species from going extinct. A species protected in captivity provides a reservoir population against a population crash or extinction in the wild. A good number of species only exist in captivity and still more only exist in the wild because they have been reintroduced from zoos. Without these efforts there would be fewer species alive today and the world as a whole would be poorer for it.”

Sukari is an ambassador for okapis in the wild.

We agree with Jean Paul, zoos are important! From helping out injured sea turtles from the Gulf of Mexico, to uniting with other AZA facilities to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise; the Houston Zoo and many other zoos are saving animals in the wild.

To help okapis in the wild, you can recycle your cell phones at the Houston Zoo’s entrance. And the easiest way to help is just by visiting the Houston Zoo! A portion of every admission and members fee goes to help programs like the Okapi Conservation Project.

Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and hear more from Jean Paul!

July’s Featured Members – The Bowles Family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to July’s Featured Members: the Bowles family.

We asked Mrs. Bowles to share a little bit about what being Zoo Members meant to her family. Here’s what she had to say.

Bowles family feeding giraffes at San Diego Zoo

“Our unintentional journey to become Houston Zoo members began about 2 years ago.  We decided to take our granddaughter to San Diego for spring break and visit their famous zoo.  Little did we know that visit would profoundly affect us and change our way of thinking.  We took a couple of tours at the zoo and were very impressed by the incredible work being done to protect animals and educate the public.  On one of the stops, we were treated to the sight of a herd of rhinoceroses including one of the last surviving white rhinos.  Hearing the story of the near destruction of this species caused a deep sense of sadness and despair in our hearts.  I realized then that my granddaughter’s children and grandchildren would probably only be able to see many animals because of the research, dedication and work of zoos both nationally and internationally.  I vowed then to do something to help these efforts.

Arriving home, I began to research zoos close to me in Texas.  I found that the Houston Zoo is one of the highest rated zoos not only in Texas, but also in the nation.  My husband and I decided to become members.  We then visited the zoo and took one of the Encounter Tours.  We had such a wonderful time, we returned and went on a Behind the Scenes tour.  Both times, we were in awe of how much we learned from the guides and the keepers and also the deep care and concern they have for the animals.  Walking around the zoo was such a pleasant and happy experience that we are determined to go as often as possible and enjoy all of the Animal Encounter and Behind the Scenes tours available.  We also decided to become Asante members and have included the Houston Zoo in our legacy giving.  Now we feel hope rather than despair knowing we are part of the Houston Zoo team’s efforts to keep so many magnificent animals both close by and throughout the world surviving and thriving for future generations.” -J. Bowles

From our team here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and wildlife conservation efforts. THANKS!

Baby Boom at the Zoo!

Babies, babies, and more babies! This June has seen a massive baby boom throughout the Houston Zoo, with the biggest baby yet to come when later this summer, the zoo will welcome a 250-300-pound Asian elephant calf.


A California sea lion pup was born to first-time mother, Cali, on June 26 after a three-hour labor. The pup and Cali began to bond immediately, and nursing was spotted within hours. The sex of the pup has not yet been determined and the mother and pup will spend a while behind the scenes strengthening their bond before they are ready to make their first public appearance.

This birth is the second sea lion pup to be born at the Houston Zoo in the past year. TJ, was born to Cali’s sister Kamia just last summer.

The sea lions at the Houston Zoo play a major part in the zoo’s Take Action conservation initiatives. As ambassadors for the sustainable seafood program, the sea lions help guests understand that the simple choices they make can have a big impact on animals. The zoo’s sea lions eat 23,850 pounds of responsibly-caught, sustainable fish each year. Sustainable seafood is defined as seafood that is either responsibly wild-caught or farm-raised that not only keeps current populations of marine wildlife at balanced numbers, but ensures they thrive over the long term. The methods by which the seafood is harvested or raised must not cause undue harm to the ocean. The Houston Zoo strongly believes that embracing the use of sustainable seafood is one of the best ways we can all protect our oceans’ health.

Two red river hogs were born to first-time-mother, Luna, on Tuesday, June 27. This is the first litter of red river hogs to be born at the Houston Zoo since they were brought to Texas in 2015 for Gorillas of the African Forest. Though gorillas and red river hogs share the same forest lands in Africa, this is truly a unique experience as you won’t see them together in a shared habitat in any other zoo.

The two yet-to-be-named hoglets made their public debut today, and can be seen frolicking in the dry riverbed of the habitat along with their mother and the other two adult hogs, Neptune and Vidalia.

The Houston Zoo is protecting red river hogs in the wild by providing funding for wildlife saving education programs in the area the hogs live in Africa.  The education programs guide local people to protecting red river hogs and other local animals in the wild.

In the zoo’s aquarium department, a fever of five white blotched river stingrays were born on Sunday, June 18. The stingrays are currently behind the scenes in quarantine. They have joined the fever (or group) of stingrays that were born in January 2017 and a few born in October 2016.

Stingrays are ovoviviparous, meaning they bear live young. Once the female stingray gives birth, the babies are left on their own. They have a yolk sac from which they absorb nutrients until they can eat on their own. Stingrays, both in the wild and at the zoo, enjoy meals of worms and shrimp.

As their name would suggest, the white blotched river stingrays have several white spots on their backs. This helps them to camouflage in the rocky bottom riverbeds where they reside in the Amazon River Basin of South America. Each white blotched river stingray is unique; no two have the same spot pattern.

The Houston Zoo is working to ensure a safe environment for rays in the wild.  Plastic bags can end up in water ways and be dangerous for aquatic animals.

Guests can see two, recently hatched Palawan peacock-pheasant chicks being raised by their mother in the zoo’s Birds of the World habitat.

This small threatened pheasant species is only found on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The males of this species are brightly colored and have eye spots on their tails, which are used in a courtship display to attract females.

The Palawan peacock-pheasant lays a clutch of two eggs that hatch after an incubation period of 18 to 20 days. The Species Survival Plan for this species is managed by Houston Zoo bird department supervisor, Mollie Coym. The zoo is helping to save this species in the wild through the Take Action Initiative for Palm Oil. Guests can also help this species in the wild by checking labels and purchasing products made with sustainable palm oil.

Ten African bush vipers were born on June 11 inside the zoo’s Reptile and Amphibian House. Like most pit vipers, the neonates were born live instead of hatched from eggs like many other types of snakes. These tiny vipers weigh-in at a mere two grams when born and are expected to grow to be between 18-24 inches long. Bush vipers vary in color, mostly shades of green, but can also be bright yellow, grey, even red.

These snakes are found in the tropical rainforests of western and central Africa and get their name from their preference for lower bushes rather than the tall canopy trees. The baby snakes will remain behind-the-scenes while they continue to grow. The Houston Zoo is saving African bush vipers in the wild by providing funds for education programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that empower local people to protect the forested homes of the wild African bush viper.

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 5

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program (MAC) to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 


The day before departure the Mariana fruit doves receive a colored band and are placed in the transport boxes. This is the last time they will be handled before they are released. The doves do not receive color combination bands like the Rufous fantails because they were banded with a metal band that has a unique number engraved on it.

On departure day the birds are taken to the dock and moved onto the boat. Everyone involved from US Fish and Wildlife and the MAC program shows up to help and to see the birds off and wish them safe travels. It is a joyous occasion with a great sense of relief. The birds are just hours away from being released to their new home. A crew of mostly US Fish and Wildlife employees and three MAC plan representatives will accompany the birds on their journey.

Once they reach their destination the transport boxes will be loaded onto backpacks. They hike up a mountain to the pre-selected release site. Below is a photo of Anne Heitman demonstrating the backpack.

The rest is up to the birds. In the coming years the department of Fish and Wildlife will do population studies to make sure the birds are reproducing.

It was quite an honor to be involved in this project. It is amazing to work for the Houston Zoo and get opportunities like this one!

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Don't miss Snow Days this weekend from 9 a.m. to noon (or 'til the Texas heat melts it away). Thanks to TXU Energy this winter wonder will be here today and tomorrow! ... See MoreSee Less


Do you wanna build a snowman? Dont miss Snow Days this weekend from 9 a.m. to noon (or til the Texas heat melts it away). Thanks to TXU Energy this winter wonder will be here today and tomorrow!

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Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! We are proud of all the hard work, passion, and dedication seen in ALL our zoo keepers, and Sara Riger is no exception! Sara has been nominated for the American Association of Zoo Keepers #goldenkeeper award, and you can vote for her to win. Simply follow the link to the original post and LIKE her photo. Next time you're at the Houston Zoo, stop by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to see Sara in action! ... See MoreSee Less


Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! We are proud of all the hard work, passion, and dedication seen in ALL our zoo keepers, and Sara Riger is no exception! Sara has been nominated for the American Association of Zoo Keepers #goldenkeeper award, and you can vote for her to win. Simply follow the link to the original post and LIKE her photo. Next time youre at the Houston Zoo, stop by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to see Sara in action!

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I actually met her a few months ago with two of my friends kids. She brought out a Madagascar Hognose snake. She was super informative and kind to my kiddos. They has a great experience talking to her and talked about it all day! You go girl!!!!

Sara is truly phenomenal!!!! Go LIKE this picture!!!!

Don't forget you have to like the actual picture!

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