Behind-the-Scenes with the Animals That Entertain You

    Many Florida zoos invite guests to watch veterinarians care for the animals.


    By Demorris A. Lee

    If viewing a little blood makes you squeamish, Trevor Suich warned theme park visitors as they rounded the corner of Busch Gardens' newest attraction, please enter this area with caution.

    Wait a second. What kind of thrill ride is this?

    Suich, a park educator, described a medical procedure that was being conducted on a five-year-old Red kangaroo. A keeper had noticed that the kangaroo's behavior was a bit odd, so the animal was brought to the new Animal Care Center for a checkup.

    The kangaroo had some bile backup and inflammation around his hind quarters. While the visitors  watched, Dr. Alexander Cole, a senior veterinarian, took a biopsy that soon would be sent to the pathology lab for examination. Cole wanted to see what was causing the apparent infection. Cole's every word could be heard by parkgoers and his every move witnessed.

    "It's not the prettiest thing in the world," Cole said, as he began to snip small pieces of tissue from the kangaroo's rectal area. "This is a very vascular area, so there may be some bleeding."

    Sure enough, as if on cue, blood began to ooze. Again, it all was seen by park visitors.

    As part of its newest attraction, Busch Gardens has moved all of its animal care from behind the scenes and placed it in a nearly 16,000-square-foot medical observation facility that park visitors can access. Shielded only by glass walls, every aspect of animal care is now viewable by the public. From tigers undergoing routine checkups to animals being X-rayed to a gorilla having a Caesarean section, parkgoers can now see it all from beginning to end.

    "We go through a lot of effort to keep our animals healthy and it's good for the public to see that," said Dr. Peter Black, a Busch Gardens senior veterinarian. "People will enjoy seeing this aspect of it."

    In addition to the glass-walled treatment rooms, also on view are a clinical lab and an interactive diagnostic tool/kiosk monitor that allows guests to get more information about the animals. Flat screen televisions mounted in the facility also allow guests to see what the veterinarians are doing.

    The facility has a nutrition center and kitchen that display all the cleanliness and stage presence of a Food Network cooking show. The animals' daily meals are prepared there, and this, too, can be seen by the public. Educators are on hand to offer demonstrations and field questions.

    Mike Boos, vice president of zoological operations, has worked for Busch Gardens for nearly 30 years. He said the park "gets so many requests to go behind the scenes" that it was logical to bring its animal care operations to the forefront.

    "We welcome the opportunity to share our level of care with our guests and to continue our mission of connecting guests to animals and the natural world," Boos said. "No other zoological facility can offer the unique, up close experience that this new facility will provide."

    Though other attractions may not show an animal's vital organs during surgery, several other places in the state provide visitors with an up-close view of animals. For instance, Jungle Island's VIP Safari Tour in Miami offers a privately guided, 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour that brings guests close to some of the world's rarest and most fascinating animals.

    In Punta Gorda, behind-the-scenes tours are offered at Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary, which houses primates, lions and tigers. And at the Palm Beach Zoo, tours can be taken of the Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex.

    Boos said Busch Gardens has been working for years to develop a way to make the care of its more than 2,000 animals – representing 307 species – more visible to visitors. This is new territory for the park, he said. One potential concern: if a surgery goes bad and an animal dies in full public view.

    "Again, this is something new," Boos said. "Right now, we are going to show everything that we do and reevaluate as we go."

    Meanwhile, back at the center, Dr. Cole continued to examine the kangaroo and explained every step to the small gathering of park goers. Some asked questions as the biopsy was being conducted.

    One guest wanted to know what kind of anesthesia was being used on the kangaroo. Another wanted to know how long the anesthesia lasted. A third wanted to know if the animal could feel anything.

    At the end of the procedure, a visitor summed it up rather neatly.

    "That's so cool," she said.


    Other Florida Animal Encounters

    Busch Gardens in Tampa – Experience animal exhibits, thrill rides, various shows and the new Animal Care Center.
    SeaWorld Orlando – See dolphins and sea lions up close, and check out behind-the-scenes tours.
    St. Augustine Alligator Farm – Features gators, birds and fossils.
    The Palm Beach Zoo – Its behind-the-scenes tours include an Animal Hospital Tour, Wild Asia and Australia Tour, Tropics of the Americas Tour and Florida Wildlife Tour.
    Brevard Zoo – Brevard Zoo is home to ore than 165 species of animals from North and South America, Australia and Africa. It also offers activities such as kayaking, train rides and educational tours. In addition, the zoo offers daily animal demonstrations that rotate depending on the day including alligator, otter and vulture feedings.
    Gatorland – Known as the "Alligator Capital of the World," the park features thousands of alligators, crocodiles and exotic birds. Gatorland also has a petting zoo, bird sanctuary, mini water park, eco-tour and alligator wrestling shows.
    Tallahassee Museum – Behind-the-scenes experiences tour near the animals (Florida panthers, black bears, red wolves and more) and the veterinary facilities. Most of the animals are non-releasable due to injury, with the notable exception of endangered red wolves, which spend time at the museum en route to other destinations, including reintroduction to the wild.
    Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary – For 30 years, Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary in Punta Gorda has rescued and cared for an assortment of unwanted and neglected animals, most of which would have been euthanized or left to die.
    ZooMiami – It just opened its latest exhibit – Wings Down Under: A Parrot Feeding Adventure – in its Australian lobe. This free-flight, 1,656-square-foot aviary houses over 300 brightly colored birds, including cockatiels, parakeets and rosellas – all parrots native to Australia. Upon arrival, guests are surrounded by the sounds of the birds chirping and singing in the aviary's peaceful environment encircled with a lush landscape inspired by the Australian Outback.
    E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center – Located in South Walton County, on the Nokuse Plantation, the center is an environmental facility serving students, teachers and professional audiences, and is nestled in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, considered the sixth most biodiverse area in the continental U.S.
    St. Augustine Wild Reserve – The reserve – a rehab facility for exotic animals, especially big cats – offers weekly tours.
    Lion Country Safari – Drive through the four-mile safari and see wild animals just inches from your car, including lions, zebras, rhinos, giraffes, wildebeest, ostrich, water buffalo, watusi and more. Then, visit  Safari World, a 55-acre, walk-through park with animal displays and encounters, rides, food, shopping and more.
    Giraffe Ranch – Located in east Pasco County, 45 minutes northeast of Tampa, Giraffe Ranch sits on 47 acres of rolling countryside. The ranch is a native wildlife preserve.
    St. Lucie County Aquarium featuring the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit – Feeding Frenzy tours take place daily at 10:30 a.m., while the snack time tour is daily at 2:30 p.m. Behind-the-scenes tours are also available.

    places to remember