Zookeepers’ pets

Animals, animals, everywhere

Bailey, photography by Neal Bruns
Addison, photography by Neal Bruns
Wrigley, photography by Neal Bruns
Sabi, photography by Neal Bruns
Felix, photography by Neal Bruns

A zoo is a microcosm of habitats and ecosystems, a place where a day’s fun outing walks alongside important lessons about conservation and compassion. People who work at zoos spend their days caring for creatures of every stripe and spot, keeping the walkways clear, consulting with other zoos on breeding programs, sending out news about baby animals born there, raising funds and helping visitors understand what they are seeing.

Then they go home to their own cats, dogs, birds and other pets. These are individuals whose love of and fascination with animals has reached through their lives and wrapped around their work. How the care of zoo animals and the companionship of domestic animals intertwine seems to vary by the animal, by the person and sometime s by the day. Mostly, it’s about perspective.

That’s something Kristin Szwajkowski, education manager for Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, and her fiancé Sasha Tetzlaff, an instructor in the zoo’s education programs, have in abundance.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, the only career option Szwajkowski saw for working with animals was veterinary medicine, and that was her intention when she began college. An internship at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in which she facilitated kids’ activities throughout the park and gave presentations to the general public, opened a new door.

“I found teaching children about animals and the natural world to be very rewarding, and so my desire shifted from treating animals to educating children,” she said. Work with various zoos allowed her to both work with animals and educate the public, and she later earned a master’s degree in education.

She met Tetzlaff while both were working at the Naples Zoo in Naples, Fla. Tetzlaff’s grandfather founded the zoo in the 1960s as Jungle Larry’s, and young Sasha grew up in the business. He’d be crawling around in diapers alongside some young zoo animal or another: “If it was a baby, it’d be in the house with us raising it,” he said.

Tetzlaff cleaned cages and helped prepare animal diets and joined the zoo staff as a keeper when he was old enough. He is now working on a master’s degree in biology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

The two also have an abundance of pets – a dog, a cat, a bird and four poison dart frogs. More on them in a moment.

People who have a lifelong love of animals and nature, especially if that encompasses caring for both zoo animals and their own pets, are well suited for bridging the gap between “out there” and “in here.” This is especially important with children – tomorrow’s stewards of both.

Kids can make the connections between what their cat or dog at home does and the behavior of a tiger or dingo at the zoo. They can learn about responsible pet ownership.

“Every exposure with the animals is a learning opportunity,” Szwajkowski said.

They can also learn about what is not responsible pet ownership, such as the Ohio man who released 56 exotic animals he’d been keeping on his property before taking his own life. Officers were forced to shoot and kill most of the animals, including 18 rare Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears, three mountain lions, two wolves and a baboon, according to ABC News.

Zoo visitors can be educated about wildlife crime, too; elephants are killed for their ivory, tigers for their skins and bones and all manner of wild animals are caught, sold and shipped worldwide as pets. It’s painful to see news coverage of the Ohio massacre or a photo of a tiger cub sedated, stuffed into a suitcase and confiscated at an Amsterdam airport. But people need to know what is happening, Szwajkowski said.

Apart from educating humans, both said, it’s really the little things that add up in their care and training of animals at work and at home. One example is what Szwajkowski calls creative, low-budget entertainment – knowing what an animal needs for enrichment and how to make it happen. You can buy expensive treats and toys to keep animals engaged and occupied, but a zookeeper knows they’ll enjoy a paper towel tube full of kibble just as much. A zookeeper well knows how and where to hide food to encourage a bird’s natural foraging behavior.

It’s also easier to trim your pet’s nails when you’ve trimmed a thousand nails before – nails attached to something bigger than a cat or Chihuahua.

About that Chihuahua…


Wrigley is no primped mini-dog being carried around in a designer handbag. This 5-year-old Chihuahua enjoys apple picking, fishing, camping, hiking and swimming. He gets around; a family photo shows him resting his front paws confidently on a cannon at Mackinac Island, and he likes an occasional Sunday drive – or drive-through – to Starbucks. Szwajkowski adopted him when she lived in Pennsylvania; knowing she would be moving soon, she wanted a smaller dog, so she typed “Chihuahua” into a pet-finding website.

A stocky-but-athletic 15 pounds, Wrigley is 75 percent Chihuahua, according to a “doggie DNA” test administered by a somewhat skeptical Szwajkowski. The other 25 percent? Border collie, Newfoundland and poodle. He doesn’t react much to the scents she brings home from work – unless she’s been around the dingoes.

He eagerly greets a visitor with a Chihuahua-sized tennis ball in his mouth. At the moment his favorite sport is fetch, and his focus remains intently on visitor and ball until Tetzlaff distracts him with the magic word known to English-speaking animals everywhere: “Treat!” Then Wrigley is more than willing to show how well he can sit, sit up, stand, crawl, spin and offer his paw. He rolls over on his back to play dead, with one leg in the air for effect, and “comes back to life” on command.

Wrigley, named for Chicago’s legendary ballpark, is actually a noted athlete in these parts, having won Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation’s Games! Dogs! Play! one year and placed second the following year.

Today, he’s just waiting for you to throw that ball again.


Sabi, was a kitten up a tree near the couple’s West Washington Center-area home when Szwajkowski found him. After she tried – and failed – to determine whether the little creature had a human guardian and who that might be, he became part of the family. At the time, Tetzlaff, a graduate student in biology, was vacationing at the Sabi Sabi game reserve in Africa – hence the name.

Sabi enjoys common cat pursuits such as grooming and “helping” with present wrapping. He also likes to drop a toy mouse in his water bowl and present the sopping-wet prize to his humans; they appreciate the sentiment, if not always the gesture itself. Earlier this year, he ate the fluff from one of his toys; surgery, a cone and a hefty vet bill followed. Now he calmly surveys his domain and doesn’t much mind the spot on one of his front legs that got shaved for the IV – even when Szwajkowski told him the haircut made him look like a poodle.


Before Wrigley came Addison the cockatiel. Szwajkowski did thorough research first   you can find books on cockatiels (and Chihuahuas) on her bookshelf. Then there was the process of bonding, or “imprinting.” Birds are unique in their ability to imprint on their handlers; in the absence of a biological parent, the human assumes the role of nurturer and companion. It’s said to be one of the strongest human-animal bonds that can exist.

That is obvious here; 6-year- old Addison nestles in the crook of Szwajkowski’s arm, contentedly accepting a neck rub. The bird has a spacious cage but spends some time out of it when the humans are home, and she often alights, barely noticed, on Szwajkowski’s head or shoulder.

The Frogs

Rounding out the household are four poison dart frogs — dendrobates azureus, to be exact: two males, two females, no names. Just “The Frogs.” About the size of a ping-pong ball, they look like something out of a Disney flick with their brilliant blue skin and black spots. And no, poison dart frogs don’t throw darts. They secrete toxins that are distasteful and potentially lethal to predators, and these secretions have been used on the tips of arrows and darts for hunting.

Szwajkowski acquired the blue crew in Naples. While serving as volunteer coordinator for the zoo there, she went to meet with the volunteer manager at the Naples Botanical Conservatory. The frogs had been on display in the conservatory’s gift shop, but when things were rearranged, the frogs ended up in the volunteer manager’s office. Not sure if she was providing the right care, she offered the foursome – corner tank and all – upon hearing Szwajkowski had been a herp (amphibian and reptile) keeper.

They eat only small, live insects – in captivity, that means culturing fruit flies. That’s not impossible for a layperson, by any means, but it’s still a bit less daunting for a pro.

That’s what it takes to care for all creatures great and small, whether they’re in your home or in a zoo – learning about who they are and what they need, and finding the best ways to provide it.

More creatures great and small

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is all about animals – and, not surprisingly, so are the people who keep it running. Here are just a few:

Brandi Short, who began as a zoo keeper in 2004 and then worked in the education department, is now the executive assistant. She and husband Adam have two beautiful golden retrievers, Rosie and Bailey.

Rosie, 6, is “a 90-pound teddy bear” who gets a little more spring in her step when there is snow – she even makes a canine version of snow angels. Bailey, 4, is a “momma’s girl” who will sit with Short for hours while she reads.

Both dogs and their people have enjoyed the Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control Walk for Animals for the last five years. “It’s a lot of fun to have the girls out and see the other dogs, and it is great to see the community support such an important cause,” Short said. “Dogs are amazing – they show you unconditional love and companionship, and they deserve it in return!”

* * *

In addition to preparing animal diets for the whole zoo, Alyssa Augustyniak cares for a picky eater named Felix – a 2-year-old bearded dragon who doesn’t always eat her vegetables. “If she doesn’t like it, she spits it out and looks at you like, ‘What did you give me?’ and is obsessed with crickets,” she said.

Augustyniak picked Felix because of her pretty red stripes and because she was the smallest bearded dragon at the pet store. Felix lives in a terrarium with two heat bulbs, but is allowed to roam the house when the weather (and floor) is warmer. She gets along with Augustyniak’s two large cats, Oliver and Lewis, and will dramatically snap her head around when someone speaks to her.

Augustyniak’s coworkers in the zoo’s commissary helped her come up with a diet for her new companion – a variety of veggies, greens, some fruit, mealworms, crickets and waxworms.

* * *

African Journey manager Amber Eagleson and her husband, JP, have Hubble, a 3-year-old yellow Lab mix; and and Luna, a 2-year-old black Lab mix, both adopted as puppies from the Kosciusko County animal shelter. “The best thing we did was adopt a second dog,” she said. “They are incredibly closely bonded.”

Hubble sports a NASA collar and is always up for a car ride. Like many dogs, he has selective hearing, except when whoever is talking is holding a treat. Luna, a fast learner, aims to please. “If she hears us training with Hubble, she comes running and has to participate,” Eagleson said. Luna also likes to greet her humans at the door with as many toys as she can fit in her mouth.

Both dogs give Eagleson “the complete sniff-over” when she comes home from work – especially if she’s been restraining a bird, assisting in annual veterinary exams or having other direct contact with the animals. They seem to know if she’s spent more time than usual in a particular animal area. “I don’t know if they can tell the difference between certain species since they seem intrigued by all of them,” she said.

Also sharing the household is 9-year-old Gombe, an orange tabby with a luxurious white ruff – named after the area in Africa where Jane Goodall conducted her research on chimpanzees. Eagleson adopted her as a kitten from Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control. Gombe craves attention – from those she knows well – and gets along well with the dogs. It’s non uncommon to see all three lounging on a couch or bed together. She also reaps the benefits of the fresh catnip Eagleson brings home; it grows in abundance on the zoo grounds.

* * *

Vet tech Mariah Russell grew up in Vevay, Ind., where her grandfather kept bees on his farm and helped her with her own 4-H beekeeping project. “It was a really special way for us to spend time together,” she said.

After a parasite spread through his hives and killed all the bees years ago, her grandpa never kept bees again. When Russell and her husband bought their first house in Fort Wayne, though, he visited and suggested their yard was big enough for a couple of hives. This time, “He just set a chair out by the hives and directed me!”

Beekeeping has many facets, Russell said; you can experiment with different hives, bees, tools, feed, timing and make it your own. The attention given to hive losses in recent years would suggest no one has perfected keeping bees yet, she said.

She takes stings in stride; as with her patients at the zoo, safety precautions and a deep respect go a long way. “I much prefer a bee sting over a tiger bite,” she said. Besides, her grandpa swore routine bee stings prevented arthritis.

Inspecting a hive on a warm spring or summer day is meditative; Russell must pay attention to every move she makes and listen to what the bees might be trying to tell her. “The pitch of their buzzing actually changes if they are agitated,” she said – and the smell of honey and beeswax is intoxicating. “It really is a Zen feeling to look at the hive frame by frame, and walk away without a sting – most of the time.”

First appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.


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