Home Museum institution Behind the scenes of EcoTarium American Zoological Association accreditation

Behind the scenes of EcoTarium American Zoological Association accreditation


As most people know, cats sleep most of the day. Big cats are no exception and when we arrive at the EcoTarium, the cougar siblings are comfortably reclining on a rocky ledge located as far back and as high as possible in their habitat with only the tips of their ears visible.

We are led up the hill behind the habitat by Zoological Manager Rachel Davison, who climbs a flight of stairs to navigate a thorny, overgrown area that overlooks the cats’ location. Both look up, bewildered to see people level with them, and both give us the classic feline stare, as if they know we’re not supposed to be there.

“People complain that [the cats] don’t do anything, but it’s natural behavior,” Davison said. She told us to shut up and take turns watching the cats, so they wouldn’t get up and leave, especially Salton, who sat up on his haunches as we approached, eyeing us suspiciously.

“He’s very aloof, a scary big cat,” she said. His sister, Freyja, doesn’t move and soon ignores us – “she’s much braver”. She added, “No matter how small, a cat is a cat,” confirming that they both love to sit in boxes.

Freyja, the female mountain lioness in her place at the edge of the cliff.

The local Worcester Science Museum is currently seeking accreditation from the American Zoological Association, which requires an institution to be not only up-to-date but constantly evolving as it looks for ways to improve. Also, they should be actively involved in wildlife conservation efforts, such as breeding programs. Potential options for the EcoTarium include the Turtle Starter Program which helps raise babies to an age that is easier to survive before release, especially since Massachusetts has many endangered turtle species.

EcoTarium zoological manager Rachel Davison checks out a bearded dragon named Damas.

For the EcoTarium, AZA accreditation will mean expanding the zoo aspect of the institution. They mainly hope to add more megafauna and use land space for new habitats for large animals such as bears, wolves and coyotes. Davison is clear that they will be focusing on the native wildlife that lives here or used to live here. Their cougars, for example, though native to the area, have not been seen in Massachusetts since 1858.

EcoTarium zoological manager Rachel Davison holds a bag of rats, which are part of the diet for carnivorous exhibits like cougars, birds of prey and foxes.

Feeding time is the only time these big cats can be trained, but not to sit, stand and turn around. “It’s important that animals participate in their own care,” Davison said.

The less an animal has to be sedated, the better, but there is no sure way to examine a conscious mountain lion – by checking the paws or the inside of the mouth – unless the animal don’t be cooperative. It is therefore essential to train them to open their mouths, raise their paws or accept injections and blood samples.

“People don’t always realize that zookeepers are also trainers,” she laughs. Davison plans to train cats to accept injections in their tails which are less sensitive but can be difficult because they are so thick.

Two North American river otters named Slydell and Daisy listen to EcoTarium Zoological Manager Rachel Davison talk to them.

Speaking of feeding time, a walk-in fridge/freezer big enough for at least four people has shelves stocked with meat for the cougars, birds of prey and other carnivores living at the EcoTarium. Looking around I noticed it was very methodically arranged with a wall of boxes filled with rabbits, mice, rats, etc., frozen in airtight bags. On other shelves were fish for the otters and huge bags of cat food for Freyja and Salton. To supplement all of their prey, they eat Nebraska Feline Diet, which contains everything they need in terms of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Davison said, however, that eating a whole rabbit is much more stimulating than the Nebraska diet because it allows for a more natural eating experience.

“It’s expensive if you have tons and tons of cats, but we’re lucky we can budget for that.”

A red fox named Socks reacts when he sees EcoTarium zoological director Rachel Davison.

Moving from wild cats to wild canines, Socks – a red fox – is much friendlier than cougars. He came running to greet Davison like a fluffy red dog, with a wagging tail. Longtime visitors will know that Socks, now 12, was first taken in by a family as a pet, before realizing that foxes, despite appearances, aren’t dogs. He was left in the EcoTarium, but by then he was too accustomed to humans to be released into the wild.

EcoTarium Mandarin's box turtle gazes out from its colorful nest.

Davison warned that often people find what they think are abandoned baby animals and try to help them, doing more harm than good.

“Take wildlife to specialists if you think they need help.”

But she admitted Disney hasn’t helped in that regard. “Our cats and our otters – we can’t share the same space with them – even Socks is still wild, and we wouldn’t have guests with him.”

To emphasize that he is not actually a dog, no matter how much he may act like one, the staff does not pet him, other than tactile reinforcement as a reward for certain behaviors.

“Even if big cats had been raised by people and were someone’s pets at some point, you wouldn’t continue those behaviors, and even our most domesticated animals, we don’t consider them animals. pet, but in terms of enrichment, they do. need more social interaction with their keepers.

A red fox named Socks turns around on the orders of EcoTarium's zoological director, Rachel Davison.

However, several EcoTarium residents regularly interact with their caretakers as well as the public, especially those who go on the road for traveling educational programs. These animal ambassadors, as they are called, can attract their own small audience and are likely to have no shortage of visitors to the museum. That’s why, Davison said, they aren’t regularly exposed, to give them a break from the constant human interaction their work entails.

Fortunately, we were able to meet the stars during our visit. Currently, their ambassadors are a chinchilla, a marmot, a pigeon called Pidge, a Flemish giant rabbit named Benny, as well as a number of reptiles. Pidge certainly had the attitude befitting a minor celebrity, as he flew around the room, perching on outstretched arms and landing on the table to strut, showing off his iridescent neck feathers.

EcoTarium Zoological Manager Rachel Davison talks to otters.

That’s not to say that staff don’t form strong emotional bonds with animals. Everyone at the museum is currently mourning the passing of longtime members of the EcoTarium family – skunks Stormy and Misty as well as Sgt. Pepper, the porcupine, in the same week.

“It’s been a tough week,” Davison said, and another EcoTarium staffer nodded solemnly.

The skunks had reached the end of their natural lifespan in human care, but Pepper, despite being the oldest porcupine in human care on record, at 19.5 years old, suddenly began to decline rapidly. Pepper’s empty habitat outside the main entrance, right next to the iconic Stegosaurus statue, was a sad reminder.

The vulture in the EcoTarium Ralph spreads its wings in the sun.

There are other iconic predators besides the big cats that live at the EcoTarium like the red-headed vulture, Ralph, who was outside sunning, spreading his wings and stretching. Its habitat is more terrestrial than that of most birds since an injured wing prevents it from flying. Like all the raptors in the EcoTarium, he was there after being deemed undetachable. The crows, Jan and Poe, had also come out and were vocalizing – but not saying “never again” like the crow in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem.

Four-year-old twins James, left, and JD Neveux of Providence watch one of the EcoTarium's otters play with a toy.

With bird flu, most birds were not exposed and were kept indoors – poultry such as chickens and ducks tend to be carriers, although they don’t necessarily show symptoms. As spring approaches when many migratory species come north, bird flu could potentially get worse, so EcoTarium staff are modifying habitats by adding more netting or plastic sheeting to reduce the risk of infection and ensure that wild birds cannot drop droppings or fly into the habitats of EcoTarium residents.

One of Ecotarium's two vultures watches from its cage.

Going from feathers to fur, we arrived at the otter habitat just after one of the “regular otter talks” so they were still diving for food and giving visitors a demonstration of underwater acrobatics . While there is room in the habitat for at least one more otter, Davison said, they need more backstage space to house another. So currently Daisy and Sydell, a male and a female respectively, are a raft (a group of otters) of two. Neither seems to mind either of them as after they are done swimming they both dry off and laze on a rock while cuddling.

“Otters are an environmental indicator,” Davison explained. Their presence in a river or lake is a clear sign of a healthy ecosystem adding, “It’s great to see otters.” She hopes the EcoTarium will one day be home to another key species of Massachusetts lakes and rivers: the beaver.

Rachel Davison, zoological director of the Ecotarium, holds the pigeon Pidge.

The complexity inherent in managing the welfare of so many animals large and small is a challenge, but EcoTarium remains committed to the highest standard of care.

“Knowledge about animal welfare, habitat design, enrichment, and training changes almost from year to year,” says Davison. “As we do more research and quantify animal welfare, the way we care for them will evolve with more science-based ways to measure welfare indicators.