Behind the Scenes Tour with the Staten Island Zoo’s Animal Ambassadors

Those of my readers who know me in real life know that I absolutely adore animals. I have three cats of my own, but I will also usually take advantage of any opportunity to meet as many other animals as I possibly can. And with the New York Adventure Club, you can attend one of their behind-the-scenes tours at the Staten Island Zoo where you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with several of their local residents, known as “animal ambassadors”. I took advantage of this opportunity myself last weekend, and it was sooo fun!

The animal ambassador program works with the zoo’s animals who are friendly and comfortable around people to help visitors like me learn about these amazing animals and where they come from. Our fantastic guide, Tom, is one of the zoo’s educators, and we gathered together with him in the zoo’s classroom to begin meeting some of their delightful “ambassadors”.

First up was a ball python named Harry. Now, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of snakes so I won’t say that I was exactly super psyched to meet this guy. As part of this experience, though, you do get to pet the animals and take an up-close look, and I have to admit Harry was actually strangely beautiful and surprisingly soft to touch! Maybe if you’ve had snakes for pets you knew this already, but I was expecting the scales to be rougher and, well, scalier. 

Harry the Python
Educator Tom placing Harry, the ball python, onto his tree

Ball pythons like to scrunch themselves up into a ball, hence the name, and they originate in West Africa. They like to spend their time in warm places and up in trees, and they are supposedly one of the most docile types of pythons. Harry was definitely pretty chill and seemed perfectly content to be held, so HE, at least, made me believe that they are indeed docile. Not sure I’m going to start running around adoring snakes from now on, but I will say I certainly have a greater appreciation and understanding when it comes to them!

Shortly after meeting Harry, we got to meet the star of the show…Duncan the Sloth! Zookeeper Kate, who is responsible for the care of all the ambassador animals at the zoo, brought Duncan in to meet us for his ambassadorial debut. He’s a two-toed sloth, which you can tell from the two toes on his front paws (they actually have three toes on their back paws to make things extra confusing.)

Kate was holding Duncan on her hip like a baby, but he kept craning his neck back and trying to look at us upside down. You’ve likely seen images of sloths hanging from trees upside down, and they really do spend a lot of time like that! However, you also often see memes of smiley sloths, but in the case of two-toed sloths, that’s really less common. Kate says they’re not really social creatures and once they’re old enough, they tend to live fairly solitary lives other than when they mate or raise their young.

Duncan the Sloth
Zookeeper Kate introducing us to Duncan the sloth. He totally looks like a stuffed animal, doesn’t he? Notice how he’s craning his neck back?

Sloths are herbivores who pretty much just hang out in trees and eat whatever is around them. And fun fact: they only poop once a week! They will come down out of their trees to quietly use the bathroom and then immediately head back up to keep hidden and safe. They do move very slowly and apparently they move SO slowly that algae will even start to grow on them when living in the wild in Costa Rica where they originate. Duncan, fortunately, was algae free when we got to pet him since he’s not living in a rainforest at the moment! His fur was fairly coarse but also fluffy, and he liked like a stuffed animal.

Duncan is just over a year old and looked like he weighed around 10-15 pounds. Kate mentioned he’d eventually be twice his size, making sloths much larger than I was expecting. I also thought they were long and lean, but Duncan had a cute little round belly. He was totally adorable, and for his first time welcoming visitors to the zoo, he did an awesome job!

Next, we got to meet the red-footed tortoise, Michelangelo, who is the largest tortoise in the education department. Unlike turtles who like to swim, tortoises live primarily on land. Red-footed tortoises have slow metabolisms which means they move slowly and basically do, well, everything slowly. But this also helps them to live pretty long lives. Michelangelo is already 14 himself! We got to gently touch his shell and his little feet and legs and watch him slowly stroll around the classroom a bit. After, he went back into his pen and settled in for a nap. 🙂

Michelangelo the Turtle
Mr. Michelangelo!

And then, we were back on to fluffy! This time, with a lionhead rabbit named Waffles. His breed is called as such because of the adorable fluffy mane around their heads. Like other rabbits, they have big ears, but they’re all covered in fur and droop down rather than pointing straight up like you’re used to seeing. The lionhead rabbit was bred by humans specifically to be kept as pets and is 100% domesticated. It’s not clear who exactly began breeding them, but they originated in Belgium, hence…Waffles…

Waffles the Rabbit
Waffles the rabbit – hard to find a face in all that fur! He is also an albino rabbit and has red eyes!

While holding Waffles, Tom talked a little about zoo protocol for handling and holding various types of animals. With Waffles, he was cradling the little guy under his hips because, as Tom explained, rabbits are always trying not to get eaten by predators so their natural defense mechanism is to run away. So by cradling his hips, it protects Waffles from hurting his legs if he tries to kick while being held in the air. Each of the animals we met was held in a very specific way, and it’s primarily to ensure the safety of the animals (and for our safety, too!)

Before meeting the final animal, Tom got a couple brave volunteers in our group to let some Madagascar hissing cockroaches crawl up their arms. I respectfully declined because, ew, but I do have a new appreciation for the little guys. They play an important role in eating decomposing materials before they can release too much methane into the atmosphere, so I guess we can thank them for keeping the air much cleaner than it could be!

Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
The Madagascar hissing cockroach. Thanks, cockroach, for eating smelly things so we can breathe fresher air!

And finally, we got to meet the last animal, which was a West African dwarf crocodile named Nero. He’s about 4.5 years old, and he definitely seemed fairly small and will stay small in comparison to his other larger crocodile cousins. The largest dwarf ever recorded was about 180 pounds and 6 feet long, but they usually tend to be more in the 40-80 pound range. Nero has a brother Brutus that he shares a tank with, but sadly, we didn’t get to meet him as well.

Nero the Crocodile
Nero the West African dwarf crocodile. He may look small, but stay away from those chompers!

While Tom was talking to us about Nero, the crocodile’s head was about a foot away from my face, so I got a really good look into his mouth. Interestingly, I couldn’t see down his throat, and we learned that they actually have a little flap back there to close off their throat when they’re not eating. Since they spend so much time in the water, this helps prevent water from constantly pouring in.

Nero Closed Throat
See how he’s closed off his throat? No opening back there means he can cruise through the water without swallowing all of it.

And with that, we headed upstairs to walk through the animal hospital, and Kate gave us a bit more info about what it’s like to be a zookeeper and what zoos actually do. And while I (and I’m sure many of you) have mixed feelings about zoos, this tour also helped me to develop a better understanding of all the work that they do. And it was abundantly clear that they all love the animals they’re caring for!

Of course, I think we can all agree that animals should be in the wild and roaming free whenever possible. The fact is, though, that there are just some instances where humans have destroyed animals’ natural habitats or where certain animals really can’t survive on their own in the wild, and that’s where zoos can play an important role in caring for and educating the public about so many of these beautiful creatures.

For example, meet Hugo, a red-tailed hawk. He was born and lived in the wild until he was hit by a car, resulting in the loss of his left eye. Left alone in the wild, he would be vulnerable to predators or he could even re-injure himself flying into something that he couldn’t see due to his missing eye. He had been sent to an animal rehabilitator, whose goal is to release animals back into the wild, but when the animal would have a poor chance of safety and survival, they’re then sent to sanctuaries or zoos that can ensure they’ll be kept safe.

Hugo the Hawk
Zookeeper Kate holding beautiful Hugo the Hawk – his eye is missing on the other side but this one is awfully beautiful!

Zookeepers spend a lot of time with the animals they care for and they spend just as much time doing paperwork, basically recording everything they observe their animals doing. Every time an animal eats and what and how much it eats is recorded and so are all their bowel movements. Anytime there is a spot or bump or scratch, it’s recorded and watched for any changes. Any odd or new behaviors are noted and carefully observed to see if they’re a sign of pain or discomfort or distress. But most importantly, zookeepers play a role in helping to ensure the survival of various species.

The Staten Island Zoo, and many others, participate in something called the Species Survival Plan program. One of the major goals of an SSP program is to track information and animal DNA from endangered species in a centralized way. This enables zoos to find suitable breeding partners (without familial DNA) to breed endangered animals in captivity and then eventually begin to reintroduce the species in greater numbers back into the wild.

This basically gives endangered species a chance to grow and survive again in a natural environment. For example, the California condor declined to just 22 remaining in the wild back in the 80s. Over the next 30 years, an SSP program increased their numbers to over 400, with more than half that number now living in the wild. It can be a slow process and not all animals bred in captivity can eventually be released into the wild, but without zoos, even more species would be extinct today than already are. I personally had no idea this was something zoos did, and it was really interesting to learn about it.

Overall, if you love animals as much as I do or even if you just appreciate biology and science, this tour is a fantastic way to experience both! The New York Adventure Club offers it about every other month, so check their calendar regularly to see when it’s happening next. Our tour was completely sold out, so you’ll want to buy your tickets quickly when you see the next date available.

Once you visit, let me know which of their awesome ambassadors YOU got to meet!

Plan Your Own Visit

Where to Go

  • Staten Island Zoo: 614 Broadway, Staten Island, NY, 10310
  • Check out their site for directions and parking information.

When to Go

  • The zoo is open seven days a week, and you’re always welcome to visit on your own!
  • If you want to meet animals up-close, keep an eye out for the next New York Adventure Club tour or check the zoo’s program calendar for other upcoming events that allow you to meet the animals.

Tips for Visiting

  • The exact animals you get to meet will be determined on the day of your tour. Like humans, animals can get sick or have a bad day or the zoo may just be in the process of training new animals, like Duncan, who they will want to introduce on your specific tour date.
  • For your safety and for the safety of the animals and handlers, follow their instructions carefully when it comes to petting and interacting with the animals. Don’t touch them when or where you’re not supposed to!
  • The animal ambassadors are all pretty chill, relaxed, and comfortable around humans. That said, stay low-key yourself! Avoid sudden movements, pet the animals gently, and don’t go putting your camera all up in their faces with your flash blinding them! Basically, help to maintain a low-stress environment so the animals can all stay happy.

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