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    I Worked At A Zoo And Aquarium For A Day, And Here's What I Learned

    Let's get wild!

    Hi! My name is Hannah, and I've lived in two zoos.

    Woman smiling and posing
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    I know you're probably thinking, "Whaaat?" I get it — it's a weird fun fact for me to spring on you like that! But I've grown up around animals my entire life. My parents both have backgrounds in biology, so I've learned about and encountered many animals over the years. Though I don't live in a zoo now, animal care and conservation are still near and dear to my heart.

    Family of three overlooking the water
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    My childhood home was smack dab in the middle of a zoo in upstate New York! Our neighbors were bobcats and elk. We then moved to another home on the property of a zoo and park in Georgia. My dad served as the director of these facilities before taking his current job in North Carolina, where we finally moved to a normal neighborhood!

    I spent a day at the Greensboro Science Center as a keeper and aquarist, where I came face-to-face with animals from around the world and learned about various wildlife conservation initiatives in place to protect and preserve these incredible species.

    I started my day by visiting some of the newest additions to the Greensboro Science Center — pygmy hippos and an okapi. I was promptly handed a shovel and began scooping copious amounts of poop. So. Much. Poop.

    Two side by sides of a woman cleaning animal poop up
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "Welcome to my world!" said Glenn Dobrogosz, director of the facility, and also my father. "As someone who has worked his way up from keeper to director, I have nothing but appreciation for all members of my team. It's important to recognize how difficult and important their work is."

    Pygmy hippos are a smaller breed of hippopotamus native to West Africa. They are endangered, primarily due to habitat loss. The Greensboro Science Center's new pair, Holly and Ralph, are a part of the Species Survival Plan. This program designates breeding pairs to establish a stable gene pool in order to, someday, restore the species back into the wild.

    Hannah Dobrogosz

    Keeper Michael Motsch gets to work alongside these fascinating creatures every day. "They are so unique and personable. Each day is a positive experience," said Mike. "The center is educating the public on this lesser-known species and the threats they face. Illegal gold mines are a large threat to these hippos, as the digging and clearing of land destroys their habitats."

    Okapi are an endangered species native to the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are relatives to giraffes and love snacking on tree branches. This adorable okapi is named Bakari, and he loves it when you pet his velvety head.

    An okapi close-up eating, next to a full-body shot of the okapi
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "Bakari is 14 and came to us from Disney's Animal Kingdom," said Kelly Rauch, who has been a keeper with the Greensboro Science Center for 11 years. Prior to her keeper job, she volunteered throughout her teen years as a junior curator and a docent. "Okapis are such amazing animals. They were only discovered by western scientists in 1901, and weren't caught on camera in the wild until 2008!"

    Next, it was time to visit the center's giant anteater, Eury. Giant anteaters are native to Central and South America and typically live to be 14–16 years old. Eury is 20, nearly 21, so he's a pretty old dude. Giant anteaters are a vulnerable species. The biggest threat to their survival in the wild is habitat loss.

    Giant anteater walking around
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "Eury is the best. He is passionate about licking the inside of boots and shoes, and he loves sleeping in late," said keeper Maranda Sickels. "I feel very fortunate to truly love my job. I get the opportunity to educate my community on how they can make a difference to help ensure the survival of these species."

    Despite his old age, Eury still perks right up if you bring him a banana. Since giant anteaters have no teeth and limited jaw mobility, I had to really mush the banana in my hands for him to slurp up. Oh yeah, his tongue is also TWO FEET LONG. He really likes shooting that thing up the sleeve of your shirt when you're least expecting it, too.

    Hannah Dobrogosz

    Then, it was off to the aquarium! The first animal I visited in the aquarium was the giant Pacific octopus, Peanut. She was very gentle and lightly suctioned onto my fingers and hands. I fed her a soft shell crab for lunch, and she seemed quite content. Though this species has a rather short lifespan, the females can lay tens of thousands of eggs!

    Giant Pacific Octopus swimming up, next to a woman putting her hand in a large aquatic tank
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "Although they may not seem like it, many aquatic animals have their own unique personalities and preferences when it comes to food and enrichment," said aquarist Jacob Chase. "Being able to observe these habits and provide appropriate care for them each day is a real joy."

    Then it was time to give the seahorses their lunch. I got to get up close and personal with the big belly and lined seahorses. Yes, the males do carry the babies! The Greensboro Science Center is part of a breeding program designed to return their seahorses' offspring directly to the wild.

    Seahorse swimming, next to a woman above a fish tank dropping in food
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "These little guys are incredibly friendly and a huge hit for all of our behind-the-scenes tours," said director Glenn Dobrogosz. "They remind our guests of little underwater dragons."

    It was then time for me to get cozy with a giant isopod. They are found in the depths of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They scavenge for dead things and may also eat slow-moving creatures. Sometimes, algae begins to build up on their backs. When this happens, an aquarist will grab a toothbrush and gently brush it off for them.

    Woman brushing an isopod, next to an isopod's face and a speech bubble that says "thanks"
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    Soon enough, it was feeding time for the stingrays. We started with the rays that, pre-COVID, were a part of the touch tank. These cownose rays can be found off the coast of New England and as far down as southern Brazil. Their mouths are on their undersides, so I had to hold their food deep enough in the water for them to suck it out of my fist as they swam by. They get excited at feeding time, which means lots of splashing!

    Stingrays in a tank being fed
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    The next ray we fed was the center's spotted eagle ray, Silver Surfer. This ray lives in a large tank with other species, but gets placed in a holding area to eat because he likes to take his time. He's also target trained, meaning he responds to a certain target placed in the water, along with the sound of a clicker. These signals help the aquarists feed him and get him comfortable with human touch for vet procedures.

    Woman feeding a stingray, the ray swimming, then the woman petting the ray's head
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    We then fed the two sandbar sharks, Mags and Lex, and the blacknose shark, Peter. They live in a large tank together with many other species. These three are also target trained, meaning they follow certain colored targets to their designated feeding areas.

    Women feeding sharks in a tank
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "You may have noticed how gently the sharks take their food from our feed poles. This is one of my favorite things to show people," said aquarist Lyssa Torres. "Sharks get a bad reputation, but I think it's important to show the public that our sharks take delicate bites and aren't aggressive at feeding time."

    We also fed the green moray eels, but that wasn't quite so seamless. You see, there are some puffer fish that also live in this tank, and they are shameless. They enjoy eating and will steal food whenever they can. So, a puffer fish did swoop in and get a little bit of the eel's meal, but rest assured, the eel still got what it needed!

    Swimming green moray eel, next to a puffer fish and green moray eel going for the same piece of food
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "I love how the Greensboro Science Center makes these amazing aquatic animals accessible to folks who aren't able to frequent the beach or snorkel to see them. Being able to see these animals directly affects how we treat the environment. This is crucial for raising awareness and understanding how we can improve our environmental impact," said Lyssa.

    My final task of the day was perhaps one of the greatest things I've ever done. I got to feed PENGUINS! The center has an adorable colony of African penguins, and I got to sit in their enclosure with a bucket of fish and get pecked and prodded by their cute faces! The arm bands depict their names and are color-coded based on breeding pairs. African penguins are extremely endangered, so they are also part of the Species Survival Plan, which increases their population and genetic diversity. The center has hatched 21 new penguin chicks since opening the aquarium in 2013.

    Woman surrounding by penguins, next to close-up penguins
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    "I am honored to work with the wide variety of animals we have. I'm proud of our conservation mission and the ways in which we inspire our visitors to help as well," said aquarist Megan Zelinksi. "I absolutely love working with our African penguins. They each have their own sassy personalities and are uniquely special."

    Fun fact: African penguins are also known as "jackass penguins" because of the loud, donkey-like sounds they make. And boy, were they hooting and hollering when I brought the fish bucket out.

    Penguins wondering around, next to a woman feeding them
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    My day at the Greensboro Science Center was both exciting and educational. I got a behind-the-scenes look at how each individual animal is cared for by the hardworking staff. The Greensboro Science Center is one of only 14 AAM and AZA-accredited facilities in the country, making it a top-tier organization for animal care and safety, education, and wildlife conservation.

    Woman feeding penguins, feeding rays, and hosing a floor
    Hannah Dobrogosz

    Thank you to the Greensboro Science Center team for letting me interrupt your day and learn more about your work! And thank you to the director, Glenn Dobrogosz, for arranging this encounter, and for your continued efforts to educate, enrich, and grow your community.

    See the animals in action in this TikTok!

    @buzzfeed

    Enjoy this calming video featuring some cute animals 🦒 Link in bio for more // @h_dobro // #Trending #Relatable

    ♬ Pieces (Solo Piano Version) - Danilo Stankovic

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