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

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.

 

CHILDREN’S ZOO KOI STREAM:  PART II – FLOATING ISLAND UPDATE

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.

Houston Zoo Hires Two New Executives

The Houston Zoo has announced that two new executives will join the organization this summer. In July, non-profit industry leaders Sheryl Kolasinski and Rauli Garcia will step into their roles on the zoo’s senior leadership team and focus on bringing the organization’s mission to life through a new strategic plan and accompanying master plan.

“I am pleased to welcome two seasoned non-profit executives to the leadership team of the Houston Zoo. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Kolasinski and Chief Administrative Officer Rauli Garcia will spearhead efforts to advance our recently adopted strategic plan and ambitious master plan, adding to the zoo’s already strong core programmatic leadership and staff,” said Lee Ehmke, president and CEO of the Houston Zoo. “Both executives bring extensive experience in the Houston and national cultural institution communities, together with impressive track records of successfully managing change and growth. They join the zoo at a very exciting time in our development, as we approach our 100th anniversary in 2022 with a redoubled commitment to saving wildlife and serving the community.”

Rauli Garcia

Rauli Garcia will start his role in the newly created position of chief administrative officer on July 5 and will be responsible for finance, purchasing, communications, marketing, and technology. Garcia will also oversee the implementation of the zoo’s new multi-year strategic plan. Rauli was recently the senior vice president of administration and chief financial officer of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Prior to joining Curtis, Rauli was the CFO of the Houston Symphony (2013-2015) and the Houston Grand Opera (2008-2013).

Rauli earned his MBA from the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Houston. Rauli continues to be actively involved with Rice University where he served as a member of the board for the Jones Partners at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.  He has held a Certified Financial Planner certificate and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional with the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.

Sheryl Kolasinski

Sheryl Kolasinski will become the zoo’s new chief operating officer leading the zoo’s business operations, which includes admissions, membership, sales and events, and oversight of the zoo’s facilities maintenance and capital projects. Kolasinski will begin her role at the Houston Zoo in mid-July. Kolasinski is joining the Houston Zoo from the Menil Collection where she served as the deputy director and chief operating officer and worked closely with the museum’s director on strategic planning as well as the implementation of the museum’s master site plan (2012-2017).  Prior to Menil, Kolasinski served as the deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations where she managed the capital design and construction program, oversaw planning and preservation, operations and maintenance, and safety and security for 19 museums and galleries, nine research centers around the world, and the National Zoo (1995-2012).

Kolasinski received her bachelor’s degree in art history from Brown University and a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a LEED accredited professional.

Celebrating a Wildlife Warrior

Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation

Enock Zulu, 2016 Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior from Painted Dog Conservation, now wears his Wildlife Warrior badge with pride as a part of his uniform. Zulu has been leading the ever-growing anti-poaching team for many years and the Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior award allowed him to travel to work with another anti-poaching project.

While visiting the other anti-poaching team, he was inspired by their use of domestic dogs in assisting with sniffing out snares and poachers. He came back with the idea to implement a domestic dog assistance unit program at Painted Dog Conservation.

Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation

Soon, Wildlife Warrior Enock Zulu will be managing a K9 unit to help his anti-poaching team be more effective in protecting wildlife. The Houston Zoo is providing funding for their dog assistance unit facility.

Congratulations Zulu! The Houston Zoo is proud to have him as a part of our team!

You too are helping Zulu and the Painted Dog Conservation project every time you visit the Houston Zoo, as a portion of every ticket and membership goes to saving animals in the wild!

African Painted Dog and pup
Photo Courtesy of Painted Dog Conservation

Are They Ostriches or Rheas?

Written by Memory Mays

Greater rhea

Often confused as mini ostriches or baby ostriches, greater rheas are actually a different species. Rheas and ostriches are close relatives of one another, but if you put them side by side, you may notice some pretty dramatic differences. Rheas are much smaller in size compared to the ostriches. Ostriches typically weigh over 300 pounds. The rheas however tip the scales at just over 70 pounds. These two very similar bird species are also from completely different continents! Rheas are found throughout South America, while ostriches are from Africa.

Common ostrich

They may have a lot of differences but they do have some similarities too. Despite having wings, both rheas and ostriches are unable to fly. Instead, they use their wings to help them while running. These wings are great at helping them keep their balance while running at super-fast speeds. Ostriches have been known to reach up to 45 miles per hour, whereas the greater rheas can run up to 40 miles per hour. On your next visit to the Houston Zoo, be sure to stop by our rhea and ostrich exhibits to see how many other differences and similarities you might see!

 

Tiny Animal Receives Massive Care

Written by: Ashley Hironimus, Zookeeper

At the Houston Zoo, we are dedicated to the care and welfare of our more than 6,000 animals, from two-ton elephants to two-pound meerkats. In May, one such tiny resident needed some extra love and attention.

On the afternoon of May 7 keepers at Carruth Natural Encounters noticed that Smoots, a meerkat, was limping while in his outside habitat. The team sprang to action, and quickly brought the 2.16-pound carnivore to the zoo’s on-site veterinary clinic and sedated him for x-rays to see if they could find the problem. The veterinary team discovered two clean breaks in his arm, likely from normal wrestling with his “mob” of fellow meerkats.

Smoots shortly after surgery with his bandage vest in his recovery crate

Smoots’ front left leg was wrapped in a splint by a veterinarian to keep the leg stable and a few days later, he was transported to Gulf Coast Veterinary Clinic to have a plate and screws put in his arm to stabilize and fix the bones. Surgery went well and for the next week he was housed in a large crate near the rest of the meerkats in their holding area. We worked to make him as comfortable as possible so he always had a nest of blankets to lay in, medication for pain control, and his group nearby to comfort him through the crate door. It was important for Smoots to have physical contact with the group through the crate door or they might see him as an ‘outsider’ and be attacked once he was fully reunited with them. While in recovery, he got sedated every other day for bandage changes and to check progress to see if his arm was healing well. Unfortunately, it was not. His surgery site was starting to abscess and even though the zoo’s vets did everything they could to treat the infection with antibiotics, the abscess was not healing.

At this point, the vets thought Smoots’ quality of life would be better if the arm was amputated so he could go back with the group. His amputation day was May 18 and Dr. Maryanne Tocidlowski did the surgery here at the zoo. Everything went well and the healing process was a lot quicker than anyone expected! On May 30, under the watchful eye of his keepers, Smoots went back into the meerkat yard with a few pals. He was instantly running around (the best he could) and greeting his fellow family with body checks and face rubs – which are all excellent signs.

Smoots (far left) having a snuggle with his mob-mates

Smoots has always been a dominant and rambunctious meerkat, and even with three legs he still runs around, climbs, and sometimes pushes around the other meerkats.  He also found his new favorite blanket (which the keepers call his ‘binky’), that he sometimes drags around the yard with his mouth so he can find his perfect spot.  It’s hard to notice sometimes that he has three legs because he really CAN do anything that all the other meerkats can do!

Climbing on top of some enrichment

Meerkats belong to the mongoose family and are also known as slender-tailed mongooses. These animals have a tolerance for venom, which is why they can eat scorpions and venomous snakes!  These animals are native to Angola, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia. Here at the Houston Zoo, you can find our mob outside Carruth Natural Encounters.

Collegiate Conservation Program Interns Clean Up Surfside Jetty

Written by Collegiate Conservation Program participants: Michelle and Maddie

The Houston Zoo Collegiate Conservation Program is a 10-week internship sponsored by ExxonMobil.  The Houston Zoo is committed to cultivating the next generation of conservation heroes.  This summer 12 interns were selected to train, learn, and work at the Houston Zoo and at regional conservation partners.

Michelle: On May 19th, to complete our first week of the ten-week Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) Internship, we went to the Surfside Jetty. There, we contributed to the goal that the Sea Lion team at the Houston Zoo works towards on a monthly basis– cleaning the Jetty of its monofilament waste and making it safe for aquatic organisms.

Located on Galveston Island, the Surfside Jetty is regularly cleaned and yet houses an unbelievable amount of monofilament. Monofilament is thin plastic fiber that becomes easily entangled in rocks, aquatic animals, and aquatic ecosystems. Fishermen often use monofilament for catching fish – however, it is not always properly disposed of in the designated bins on the jetty. Often, people are unaware that despite its deceptively thin and small appearance, it can easily harm organisms. Monofilament was stuck between the rocks, preventing it from getting out to sea, but it was difficult to remove and could still affect the ecosystems right along the jetty.

Using pliers and trash pickers, we removed as much monofilament and other trash as we could. Various items were found, as common as water bottles that people use daily and as odd as a tire. To me, one of the most shocking and relevant realizations of this Surfside Jetty cleanup was that I recognized the brands of most of the trash we picked up. We saw waste from Whataburger, Dasani water bottles, McDonalds, and other familiar brands that we see on a daily basis.

Often, we don’t think about where this trash ends up until we’re face to face with it. Our essentially mindless consumption of these products used to not even make me pause; now, I can’t look at those logos without thinking of the Surfside Jetty.

Maddie: I found Jetty Project to be truly unique for both the large and tangible impact a few hours of work provided and the opportunity it afforded to interact with community members directly affected by our efforts. One of the most rewarding moments in my afternoon involved a local fisherman smiling silently as he took it upon himself to pick up various monofilament lines around his rocky perch and hand them over to be sorted. In that gesture I saw a mutual appreciation of each other’s efforts: his to pull a sustainable harvest from the sea, and ours to keep that space healthy and available to fishermen and tourists alike.

Besides the fulfillment that came from sharing our conservation message with a target community, I enjoyed learning myself. Waste is far too easily flushed away and forgotten by the average American, myself included. Coming face to face with the garbage in our gulf forced a change of perspective. After balancing on my hips with two hands and a torso down between bug infested and tidally turbulent rocks, reaching for a single piece of monofilament, I grew a distinct appreciation for recycling. In fact, I have not purposefully used a straw (unless it came in my drink) since that day. That marks nearly a month of visions of micro-plastic popping up every time I eat out!

Ultimately, it is the changes seen in ourselves and others that makes any endeavor worthwhile. The Jetty Project enables such development by bridging the gap between wildlife and coastal communities.

Connecting People to Nature

Last week two of our partners marked this year’s World Environment Day’ theme, ‘Connecting People to Nature,’ in unique and impactful ways.

Wildlife DVD viewing, photo courtesy of Ruaha Carnivore Project

Ruaha Carnivore Project works in Ruaha National Park, the largest park in Tanzania. RCP connects people to nature every day as they work in close partnership with local villagers to reduce people-wildlife conflicts and create a greater understanding of wildlife.

Two ways Ruaha Carnivore Project has done this is through Park Trips and DVD Nights. These provide an opportunity for villagers who live near Ruaha National Park to experience wildlife, particularly carnivores, in a positive manner. These outreach programs are wildly popular with more than 30,000 attendees at DVD Nights and more than 1,000 people participating in Ruaha National Park trips!

Niassa Carnivore Project works to protect lions in Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. This year, they celebrated World Environment Day by signing a two-year partnership agreement with Mbamba Village. This remote village used to be in the top three poaching villages in Niassa Reserve. Signing this agreement has taken the entire Niassa Lion Project team, the village association, elders and traditional chiefs hundreds of hours of negotiations and meetings with a lot of frustration and endless listening.

Photo courtesy of Ruaha Carnivore Project

All this cooperation is creating tangible results. In the small area that Niassa Lion Project manages with Mbamba village, elephant poaching has reduced from 22 a year to less than 5. Animal numbers in this area, including lions, are up. With the support of Niassa Lion Project, the number of households involved in alternative livelihoods is increasing. As the director of Niassa Lion Project says in the Facebook post announcing this agreement, “Honoring people and wildlife and meeting the actual needs of people who live in this special place is in our opinion the only long lasting solution. A major step forward.”

Niassa Lion Project and Mbamba Village Partner Agreement signing. Photo courtesy of Niassa Lion Project

While World Environment Day has passed, every day can be world environment day! We have amazing wildlife here in Houston, so take a stroll through a park, or come visit us here at the Houston Zoo!

To learn more about these projects and their activities on World Environment Day, like the Niassa Lion Project and Ruaha Carnivore Project on Facebook!

 

Every time you visit the Houston Zoo you are saving lions in the wild as a portion of every ticket and membership goes toward saving animals in the wild.

 

Pardon Our Dust – More Room for Bears!

Written by Katie Buckley-Jones

 


Pardon our dust! You may have noticed some construction going on around the bear exhibits lately. We are excited to be renovating an old, unused space for our black bears! The Houston Zoo is home to two four-year-old female American black bears, Belle and Willow. Belle and Willow came to us back in 2013 from California. They were being fed by a restaurant and appeared to be orphaned. US Fish and Wildlife rescued them and reached out to our facility to see if we could offer them a home. Belle is often observed playing in the pool and rough housing with her sister. She is the larger of the two and tends to be a bit lazier. Willow is the mastermind behind the brawn of her sister. She is smaller and tends to be an instigator. You can often see her attempting to work through puzzle feeders or running away from her sister after waking her up.

As our bear girls get older, they are in need of more space to play and roam! The space used in the renovation has not been used for many years and was in much need of repair. We used this opportunity to take a close look at what bears need as a species and apply it to this new renovation. The Zoo is excited to offer them more room and an enriched environment. This new renovated area comes complete with built in foraging options, a cedar fort, and places to hide, dig, and climb.

We began this project by creating a tunnel between the current bear habitat and the renovated space. This will allow the girls to have the option of being in either area, so when you come visit be sure to check both places for the bears! The keepers will have the opportunity to enrich the bears further by transferring them from one side or the other or giving them access to everything. There will also be an additional bedroom area behind the scenes for the girls to sleep in.

We are thrilled to see these girls romp and play in their bigger and better habitat.  Stay tuned for more updates!

Take Action for Our Oceans

It’s a well-known fact that the ocean makes up a very large part of the planet we live on. In fact, the ocean covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface! Though it may seem a daunting task to keep ALL that ocean healthy, we can all take small actions that have a big impact in protecting the ocean and the animals living there.

First things first. Why should you want to protect the ocean? Our ocean actually make oxygen, and that’s pretty neat (and also life-saving)! Phytoplankton living near the surface of the water absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis just like plants do on land. They cover a lot more surface area of the planet and, therefore, produce half of the Earth’s oxygen supply. We can thank the ocean for helping us be able to breathe!

In addition to oxygen, the ocean also provides food! The diversity of life in the ocean makes for some interesting meals, but some species are being overfished and upsetting the delicate balance of life in the big blue. The good news is we can protect these overfished species! When you’re eating seafood at a restaurant or purchasing it at the grocery store, make sure to choose ocean-friendly, sustainable seafood. Ocean-friendly seafood is seafood that has been caught or farmed in a way that protects animals like sharks and rays and ensures fish populations thrive over time.

Being ocean-friendly can be simple, too! Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to learn which seafood options are best choices or good alternatives. Use the app when making your ocean-friendly seafood purchases at grocery stores or ordering at restaurants.

The Houston Zoo is also ocean-friendly! All the animals at the zoo that eat seafood eat only sustainable seafood. In fact, the sea lions ate 23,850 pounds of ocean-friendly, sustainably-caught fish last year. The zoo also ensures seafood served at any on-site restaurant or special event is always sustainably-sourced.

You can learn this and so much more at World Oceans Day Presented by Whole Foods Market this Saturday, June 10 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visit booths and enjoy activities as you learn how you can keep our oceans healthy and protect the animals living there, sign up for our annual beach clean-up, and enjoy themed Meet the Keeper Talks presented by Phillips 66. This event is included in your zoo admission and is free for Zoo Members. Click here to learn more about World Oceans Day Presented by Whole Foods Market and how to protect the ocean.

World Oceans Day Presented by Whole Foods Market is generously sponsored by Whole Foods Market and JUST Water.

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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

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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!

Comment on Facebook

Yay, planning to visit tomorrow! How's parking for 9am arrival?

So wish Texas wasn't so far away from Georgia right now. Looks so fun!

I'm originally from Canada...you have no idea how happy this makes me!

My kiddos loved it. Had an awesome time!!

Loren Otero snow days again

Maru Perales, mire la nieve super

What is the admission?

Reya Zamani

Angela & Juan M. De Anda

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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

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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 youre at the Houston Zoo, stop by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to see Sara in action!

Comment on Facebook

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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