Dave McDonald - Animal Keeper
The Greater Vancouver Zoo’s Vivarium is home to a number of reptiles, amphibians, insects, arachnids, fish, birds, and small mammals. Dave is in charge of taking care of all of them.
The animals in the Vivarium, while small and often very cute, are not easy to take care of. Many of them are former pets who were donated to the zoo when their owners realized how difficult they were to take care of. Each animal needs a specialized enclosure with lots of space, proper lighting and heat sources, a very specific diet, and care that is difficult and expensive to replicate at home. The Vivarium animals here at the zoo thrive under Dave’s professional attention, and many of our animals are much healthier than they were when they arrived.
On this particular morning, I was greeted by three Red-footed tortoises when I entered the Vivarium – named Memo, Tork, and Kuba. They were given free reign of the area to get some exercise before visitors arrived. Tork and Kuba are twelve years old, and have lived here for the last five years. Memo is eight years old, and has spent the last two years here. Although they initially look slow, they move pretty efficiently across the concrete floor, and Dave is constantly moving them out of the way as he cleans. They appear curious about the newcomer in their space, and wander toward lights, open doors, and want to see what’s going on. I pet them very gently on their shells. It’s important, when touching a tortoise, never to tap on their shells because they can feel it! Their shells are part of their skeletal system, and are made of fused ribs and vertebrae. Contrary to popular belief, tortoises can never leave their shells no more than we could leave our rib cages. When I touch the top of Kuba’s head, he pulls it back under his shell slightly; this is a defensive reaction. Red-footed tortoises live around 40 years, so ours are still young. Since the tortoises need lots of space to wander around, and ours are growing up fast, they are getting a new enclosure! Construction is currently underway, and they hope to move into their new home soon.
Domino, the zoo’s Nile Monitor, was born in 2007 and moved when he was about a year old. Nile Monitors are very aggressive animals, and do not make very good pets because they rarely become tame enough to handle. They are illegal to own in British Columbia without proper permitting. When Dave opens the door of his enclosure, he wears special gloves because Domino snaps around fast as lightning to sink his teeth into the gloved hand. Nile Monitors are designated a “Controlled Alien Species”, and the zoo employees must have two years experience around large reptiles before being allowed to work with them. Dave handles Domino expertly, but from my viewpoint safely out of harm’s way, I’m a little startled at how aggressive and fast this little lizard can be. Domino is small for his age, likely because he was underfed or malnourished by his previous owner, so he will never reach his potential size. A fully-grown Nile Monitor can be 7ft long, while Domino is just over 3ft long. They are strict carnivores, but are not picky eaters. They’ll eat insects, eggs, small animals, and even carrion. They prefer foods that are small enough to swallow whole, but will take bites if necessary. An unusual thing about Nile Monitors is that they will hunt in teams – one will distract a mother crocodile while the other sneaks in to eat the eggs; this behaviour is rarely seen in reptiles.
The Vivarium is home to non-reptiles too, and three of the furry creatures who inhabit it are marmosets – a small member of the primate family. They are among the Viviarium’s most charismatic residents as they jump from branch to branch and interact playfully with visitors who peer through the window. Our three marmosets are sisters – named Benecio, Ignacio, and Zaria – and they were born in March 2007, August 2007, and November 2008 respectively. Their parents passed away within the last few years; their father, Miko, lived 22 years, which is a very long life for a marmoset. The marmoset lifespan in the wild averages around 10 years. Dave particularly likes working with them because the care they require is so different from that of reptiles. For the most part, reptiles are pretty content to be left to their own devices, while marmosets require constant stimulation for entertainment. Dave had never worked with mammals before, so it took him a bit to get the hang of marmoset enrichment, but now their enclosure is filled with toys, branches, swing ropes, and blankets. He feeds them three times a day and hides their food so they put effort into searching. He’ll put piñatas filled with crickets in their enclosure so they are challenged to catch the hopping insects. It’s always a challenge to add new things they’ve never seen before to keep them entertained.
Next time you’re at the zoo, we hope you visit the Vivarium to see all these fascinating creatures for yourself!