Story and photos by Michelle Jameson
The screeching was so loud, conversation stopped. A group of lemurs jumped frantically from perch to perch. The wolves were circling.
“They’re just trying to get a look at what we are doing,” said Jessi Hamman, my guide for the day.
The wolves were pacing the front end of their enclosure, which made the lemurs rather uneasy. Add to that the whale-like sounds from New Guinea singing dogs and it was a veritable wildlife orchestra.
Jessi is one of several staff members at North Georgia Zoo & Farm tucked away on a remote property in Cleveland. She’s one of the animal handlers and coordinates and trains staff.
We moved into the exotic portion of the zoo’s menagerie. It was just about freezing and while some animals were holed up in their dens, others didn’t seem to notice. Quiet returned, mostly.
Started by Tom and Hope Bennett in 1997, the zoo is actually three separate enterprises: the petting zoo, the educational outreach and animal husbandry. Most people only associate with the petting zoo portion, which consists of the usual players of sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.
Wildlife Wonders is the educational outreach portion and is where Hope’s passion really lies. The first animals were Hope and Tom’s pets, parrots, reptiles and small animals as well as livestock animals.
“Our director, Hope, started doing educational outreach programs with her personal pet animals at schools and churches,” said Jessi. “The business continued to grow and Wildlife Wonders was created.”
Specially trained handlers take some of the more exotic animals to schools or host classes at the zoo to teach children more about the animals and their habitats.
Also under the umbrella of Wildlife Wonders is Paradise Valley Farm, with a focus on breeding of miniature livestock as pet animals.
“Some of the animals we breed are mini pigs, as well as several breeds of goats and sheep (we are the national breed registry for one and set the breed standard) as well as ponies, llamas and alpacas,” said Jessi. In fact, the husbandry and outreach both help keep the lights on for the zoo.
“It takes $60,000 to $80,000 a month just to cover the cost of general zoo operations, said Hope. “Most of the cost involved is animal feed and care. But this also includes maintenance, office, vehicles upkeep, payroll, etc.”
The educational programs, tours, talks and admission costs are the primary sources of funding. However livestock sales do help some, too. The zoo receives no government funding.
“This is why we appreciate donations, volunteers and sponsors,” said Hope.
Jessi shows me a few of the DNR animals. They’ve been classified by the state and federal wildlife guidelines as “do not release,” mostly because of injuries that would render them helpless in the wild.
So I can’t help but wonder: How does the zoo come by the animals, rescue and otherwise?
“Some of our animals are born at the zoo, some come to us as injured wildlife (Hope is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator), said Jessi. “If the animals can be restored to health and released, they are, if not we provide homes for some non-releasable animals as well, this includes white tail deer, turkey vultures, beavers, etc.”
Animals also come from other zoological facilities. And there are those, such as parrots and monkeys, that are former pets or illegally owned animals that have been confiscated. What are the most exotic animals the zoo has acquired? That depends on perspective said Jessi.
“We love having some really amazing animals that people aren’t as familiar with, like betongs, binturongs, coatis. We also have several species of macropods (the kangaroo family), a sloth named Jubilee, Asian small-clawed otters, birds of prey, African and north American porcupines, a white handed gibbon, monkeys, bush babies …” The grand total? Upward of 300.
And part of their care is enrichment. This means keeping the animals active and exercising their natural instincts, be it chewing, building, hunting or jumping. For instance, toys and food are hung from the top of the serval cats’ enclosure enticing the cats to jump just as they would in the wild.
Jessi notes that zoos are essential for endangered species propagation (like the New Guinea Singing Dogs which are a part of a Species Survival Plan.).
“About 25 people in total work at the zoo, although this changes as we take on seasonal staff, interns and volunteers. There are many different roles at the zoo, and some have little to do with hands-on animal care but all contribute to our overall success — this includes maintenance staff, office staff, tour guides.” The volunteers and staff members range in background from those with college degrees to your basic animal lover. Volunteers generally are not permitted to help with care of exotics.
As bitterly cold as it was, the grounds were still a hive of activity with staffers busy adjusting heat lamps and wrapping pipes. And the reptile house must maintain a warm, muggy temperature. Parrots needed their enclosures wrapped with tarps before nightfall.
We hopped on an all-terrain vehicle and crossed the road where the camels, cattle and yaks were grazing. Their tales swung blissfully, hot breath puffing from their nostrils like steam from a kettle.
Jessi points out a tract of land that will be the eventual home of giraffes. Up another trail is a building where all staff training occurs. At the end of another trail is the home of Hope and Tom.
The entire zoo is overseen by an alphabet soup of departments that ensure the animals’ welfare. There’s the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources and the Zoological Association of America. The grounds and animals are inspected several times a year and permits are granted based on results.
While the zoo has only been open to the public for seven years, expansion has been steady since the beginning.
“We hope through the work that we do, with our focus on education through experience, that we can reach people, inspire them to care about these animals in the wild and be conservation-minded.”
And how did Jessi end up here? We go back to the wolves. She radios for an assistant and then brings out a large black timber wolf whose menacing appearance is now somewhat docile. She quickly reminds me that while he may seem like an overgrown puppy, he’s still a wild animal. She’s required to have another person with her anytime there is interaction, just in case.
“Wolves have been my passion and area of focus for many years. The wolf education program at the zoo was a perfect fit for what I wanted to focus on. In the time since then, I have had the opportunity to learn lots of other things, work with tons of animals and be a part of helping the zoo grow. I feel very happy and lucky to be here.”
For more information on encounters, hours and how you can help, visit www.northgeorgiazoo.com.