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Keeper Spotlight: Reptiles and Amphibians with Alyssa Borek

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

In case you missed our keeper spotlight on Instagram (@woodlandparkzoo) last week, here’s an inside look at what it’s like to work with snakes, lizards and turtles as part of Woodland Park Zoo’s reptile and amphibian team.

Hey everyone, we'd like to introduce you to Alyssa Borek, lead keeper on our reptile and amphibian team. Alyssa is a herpetologist—an expert in caring for our turtles, snakes, frogs and lizards. We're going to hand you over to Alyssa today for an up-close look at what it takes to care for these amazing creatures. Enjoy!

Alyssa Borek with a flowerbox turtle. Photo by Peter Miller.
Hi everyone, thanks for following me along today as I show you a few really cool parts of being a zookeeper and working with herps. In this photo, I am holding one of my favorite turtles here at Woodland Park Zoo!  This is one of our female flowerback box turtles, or as I refer to them, Cuora galbinifrons.  These turtles are Asian box turtles from China, Vietnam, and Laos and are Critically Endangered in the wild.  Woodland Park Zoo animal keepers have figured out the perfect balance of science, pixie dust and magic to get them to successfully breed.  We currently have five juveniles of this species ranging in age from 1 ½ to 2 ½ years old. 

 Thanks for all the fish! Burmese vine snakes hang loose. 
These Burmese vine snakes, Ahaetulla fronticincta, are a long time favorite of both visitors and keepers.  These beautiful snakes are piscivorous, only feeding on live fish. Many visitors enjoy watching carefully to see if they can see them hunting in action.  These snakes are now housed off exhibit, but I still enjoy offering them food and watching them hunt.  These snakes send a shout-out to our commissary staff who keep them in steady supply of just-the-right-sized fish.  

Black breasted leaf turtle gets its snack on.
Yummy breakfast!  This small turtle is a fully-grown black breasted leaf turtle, Geoemyda spengleri, enjoying a well-balanced breakfast of salad, fruit, cat food and bugs.  Since we are not always able to replicate an animal’s diet exactly as it would be in the wild, we work with a nutritionist to come up with a personalized diet that has all the nutrients that they would be getting in the wild with ingredients we have available to us.  Often, I think our reptiles eat a better diet than I do...I would not be too keen to eat the bug part of their diet, but the rest of it is always fresh and looks delicious, and the animals seem to agree!

Asian brown tortoises are some of the largest in our collection.
Asian brown tortoises, Manouria emys, are the largest tortoise species in Woodland Park Zoo's collection (4th largest in the world!), with the male (in foreground) weighing in at over 30 lbs!  These majestic tortoises are from an ancient lineage, perhaps the oldest species of tortoise that currently exists.  The females will create a mound nest with leaf litter and vegetation to lay their eggs then actively defend it from predators—the only tortoise species to exhibit this behavior!  Look for these amazing tortoises to debut in a new exhibit, Assam Rhino Reserve, in the summer of 2018!

Up close with a Denny's tree frog.
Say hello to this Denny’s tree frog!

Reptiles are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, meaning they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature.  As part of my job, I closely monitor temperatures in the environments of all the animals I work with.  One of the tools I use is a temperature gun that has a laser sight on it.  While taking routine temperatures of this little lizard's habitat, he was very interested in the laser dot and followed it around.  Don't worry, he got some tasty crickets after I filmed this video!  This is a juvenile shield-tailed agama from North East Africa and one of the ways I can tell he is a boy is because he has a splash of blue coloring visible on the side of his jaw and under his throat.  

Juvenile emerald tree boa.
A lot of reptiles and amphibians are threatened by human-associated activities, so I would ask everyone to help conserve the planet to help them.  If we all do a little, it will help a lot.  Reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, turn off lights when you leave the room, don’t leave water running, use the cold water setting on your washing machine, pick up trash if you see it outside, run the dishwasher only when you have a full load, etc.  If you see reptiles or amphibians in the wild, enjoy their splendor, but leave them where they are. Take a photograph so you will always remember your encounter and they will remain there for others, including future generations, to enjoy. This orange beauty is a juvenile emerald tree boa.  This species is named after the adult boas, as they turn green as they get older.

Photo courtesy of Alyssa as a kid, still loves snakes just as much!
Working with animals is a life-long passion of mine!  This is certainly a challenging career, but the sacrifices have always been worth it!  For those of you looking to be a zookeeper, I recommend trying to do your best in school and at minimum get a four-year degree.  Try to volunteer as much as possible with different zoos, aquariums, nature centers, etc., and be prepared to have several internships and/or part time jobs before landing a full time zookeeping job.  You will be rewarded with the opportunity to work with some amazing animals and contribute to saving animals from extinction. Here is a throwback to me as a kid, still just as fascinated by animals now as I was then!

Selat enjoying a Valentine treat. Komodo dragon love!
As a zookeeper, I am always trying to enrich the lives of the animals in my care and make their lives as dynamic as possible.  Depending on the species, there are a lot of different types of enrichment that can be provided.  Sometimes, I will add a sprig of fresh herbs to an enclosure, giving the animals a chance to smell (and possible eat) something novel.  Other times, I will add a pile of leaves from zoo grounds to their enclosure, giving them something to dig through and probably some tasty bugs to munch on.  For some of the holiday-themed weekends at the zoo, I will prepare a special tasty treat… like this Valentine’s steak for our beautiful Komodo dragon, Selat!

King cobra in a snake tube so veterinary staff can take a blood draw, safely. Photo by Kimberly Dawson.
Safety first!  For the venomous snakes in our collection, we have strict safety protocols to follow to make sure the keepers and staff are always safe.  When handling these snakes, we always use tools that keep us out of “strike distance.”  Some of these tools are hooks, or tongs, or as seen in this photo a restraint tube.  By running the snake into a clear tube, we are able to safely restrain him while the veterinary staff perform an exam on this king cobra, Ophiophagus hannah.  In addition to a physical exam, they were able to obtain radiographs and a blood sample on this snake.  

Hello gecko.
Well that's it for today, I hope you learned a little more about the amazing reptiles and amphibians we have here at Woodland Park Zoo. It was great to share my day with you all. Thank you for following along and if you see me at Woodland Park Zoo be sure to say hello! 

Editors note: Last year, a fire damaged the Day and Night Exhibit building. Since the fire, most of the animals have lived in temporary housing in several off-exhibit locations around the zoo. Several species have even bred and produced offspring. It's been hard work to care for these animals in different locations around the zoo, but we have lots of great keepers dedicated to making sure all of their needs are met. The zoo is still working through insurance to decide on the next best steps to take. We will keep you posted as soon as we have any updates.