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Keeper Spotlight with Amanda and Tree Kangaroos

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
with Amanda Dukart, Animal Keeper

We have a host of amazing staff, including animal keepers. Our Keeper Spotlight series aims to highlight their work and their passion for saving species as well as getting our readers an insider view of what it might be like to work at Woodland Park Zoo.

Hello! My name is Amanda and I work as an animal keeper at Woodland Park Zoo. I currently work with tree kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies, emus, kea, kookaburra, masked lapwing, wonga pigeons, blue-faced honeyeaters. But in the past I’ve worked with everything from big cats to primates, grizzly bears to reptiles! Today I am going to show you around my day-to-day a bit and how I work with our tree kangaroos.

Amanda poses with a snack of fresh veggies for the tree kangaroos. This is their indoor space, behind the scenes.
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Biology and then started my animal keeping experience at Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, North Dakota, but I have been an animal keeper at Woodland Park Zoo since 2017. There are so many things I love about my job! Probably one of the coolest things is seeing someone’s face when I tell them a fact about an animal that they just didn’t know before. I remember going to the zoo as a kid and my mind would go wild learning about all the awesome adaptations that different animals have. It's really fun to pass that on to guests visiting the zoo.

I love working with our tree kangaroos. Ecki is brave like his mom, Elanna, and is a yam lover like his dad, Rocket.

Since Ecki was born, we have been monitoring both him and Elanna very closely. She contributes in her own care and allows us to do a voluntary pouch check. This is a very important behavior because it allows us to see inside the pouch so we can see, initially, if she gave birth as well as all of the developmental milestones of the joey along the way. We were doing pouch checks on Elanna several days a week so we could see things like: nursing, Ecki’s eyes opening, nail and fur development, and all sorts of milestones of joey development that happens in the pouch. We also kept a daily record of different things we saw including the first time we saw body parts sticking out of the pouch, the first time he was all the way out of the pouch, play behavior, and eating solid foods. The first thing we saw sticking out of Elanna’s pouch was his tail! When we saw his head pop out for the first time about 10 days later, he still looked pink and he was almost furless (he was about 5 ½ months old). When Ecki was about 6 months old, he made an appearance fully outside of the pouch for the first time! He made very short trips outside of the pouch while gaining more and more confidence with each trip. When he wanted to get back inside, he just made a somersault back in head first!

Ecki grows up and romps around mom, Elanna. VIDEO:

This is the first time I have had the privilege of working with tree kangaroos. I’ve learned so much about them and instantly fell in love with the species. I have always loved macropods, but had never had the opportunity to work with tree kangaroos until working here.

Ecki is so fun to work with! He is starting to gain confidence every day. It has been so awesome watching him learn how to navigate his world of branches and grow his climbing skills to the max! He was a bit wobbly at first but he has definitely gotten his “tree legs.” It is a full body experience when trying to eat produce; he sways back and forth until he is the master of the produce! One of my favorite moments was when he took a yam from us for the first time. You could see the cogs in his mind working, and watch the curiosity take over to make the leap to get his favorite snack. Now he is a pro and doesn’t let a lot hold him back!

Ecki enjoys a yam and other produce from keeper Amanda. VIDEO:

Elanna is such a great mom, so our job caring for Ecki has been really easy! We make sure he is hitting his developmental milestones and keeps thriving within mom’s care, but otherwise, we let her do her thing! Since he has started eating solid foods, we have been getting him comfortable with us and giving him his favorite food item (yam) so he learns to trust us just like he trusts Elanna. We allow him to participate in training if he wants to when we work with Elanna. So far, he has been just watching from a distance. As far as diets go, tree kangaroos are folivores (leaf eaters). They eat a variety of types of browse, eating not only the leaves, but the bark, flowers, and berries. We prepare things like romaine, kale, spinach, carrot, corn on the cob, banana (the greener the better!) bok choy, and even hard-boiled egg! (Although tree kangaroos are folivores, in the wild they have been seen eating eggs, so cool! Our roos’ favorite items are: dandelion greens, yam, and hard-boiled egg.

I knew since I was a young child that I wanted to work with animals in some capacity. I started off thinking I wanted to go into veterinary medicine, but by the end of high school, I realized that what I really wanted to do was be a zoo keeper. It combined multiple aspects of animal science that I loved including things like conservation and animal behavior.

Getting to spread the message about this species and the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program is something pretty special. Tree kangaroos are not as well known by the general public as some of the more popular macropods, so it is cool to share information about them and the conservation program that was started right here!

I see my role as a keeper as a voice for the animals both here and in the wild. Just a little spark can go a long way in people’s willingness to make an effort in conservation. I believe that sharing my passion for animals can inspire others in the community to help however they are able. 

In working with the tree kangaroos Amanda is collecting data on tree roos that assists with the work of the TKCP in the wild.  She also has a lot of opportunities to share her work with donors and guests and educate them on how our management of different species contributes to field work.

Tree kangaroos hang out in the moss-covered canopy in Papua New Guinea. 

My typical day starts out with getting the diets ready to feed all the animals. This includes: keas, wallabies/wallaroos, honeyeaters, kookaburra, wonga pigeons, and masked lapwings. After the diets are ready to go, it is time to feed! Once everyone has some food, I clean the kea exhibit and kookaburra and other birds’ exhibit. After all this, it is time for tree roos, so I make my way to another part of the zoo to give them their breakfast and clean their home as well. After spending quality time checking on them, and squee—ing over Ecki, I come back to Australasia to get the rest of the daily chores done. When the end of the day rolls around, it is time to give keas access to their inside holding area and to give afternoon produce snacks to the wallaroos and wallabies. 

Every day they get something different. It rotates between banana (greener the better!), yam, and apple. Emus also get a head of romaine and a half of an apple (which we serve on orange Frisbees). We use the Frisbees for training purposes during weight checks, tactile work, and even laser therapy! I head back to tree roos for the end of the day feeding and check in. I make sure they are doing well and they have all they will need for overnight. I round out the day with some record keeping and computer work. It is important to keep daily records so that all animal care staff is up to date on what is happening with the animals. This allows us to see trends that may be important to their care.

Each day brings on a whole new set of adventures! Although there is a basic routine that we follow, there are a lot of things that come up that can make things a bit more interesting than planned. There could be a sick or injured animal, a wind storm or even a snowpocolypse! There are things we may have to do to keep all the animals comfortable in inclement weather such as maintaining heat in our barns so that the roos and emus don’t get too cold. We also provide misters for the emus so that they can cool down on our really warm days (they LOVE their shower time!). We take weights on a regular basis to make sure everyone is in a healthy condition along with preventative medicine techniques. We also like to have fun with making enrichment for the animals to help show off their natural behaviors.

Kea, wallaby and emu!

Let's meet a few of the Australasia crew...

MJ is one of our red-necked wallabies. He was orphaned when he was about 9 months old. His mother became ill and was unfortunately not able to recover so we kept a very close eye on him. He was eating solids already, so we offered him produce, grass, hay, alfalfa, and our roo grain while we monitored his weight to make sure he was growing. He thrived and is now living in our holding yards until he is ready to go to his new home. He was such a trooper through the whole thing and he gained more confidence as the days passed. He was hopping on a scale like a pro so it made our jobs easier to monitor his weight.

Windana is our male emu. He is 27 years old! Emus are the second largest bird in the world. They can weigh more than 100 lbs! Male emus actually construct the nest and incubate the eggs once the female lays them. He will sit on them for 8 weeks while the chicks are growing inside their egg homes. During this time, he won’t eat or drink and loses about 1/3 of his body weight!

Squint and Mahoihoi are our keas. Mahoihoi is 35 years old and Squint is 53! You can tell them apart by looking at their feathers. Mahoihoi has a little patch of lighter feathers on the left side of his breast, where Squint has all of the darker green feathers. Keas are known for being SUPER smart! They have been seen tearing the rubber seal out of the wind shield on cars in New Zealand. There are also sightings of them moving orange traffic cones all around the streets. They were almost eradicated in NZ. They would eat the fat off of the backs of sheep and end up killing them. This didn’t sit well with sheep farmers, so keas were hunted in hopes to save their sheep. Between the 1860’s and 1970’s there had been an estimated 150,000 keas killed! There is thought to be only around 5,000 left in the wild, making them an endangered species. Organizations like the Kea Conservation Trust are working towards education and conservation to save the wild kea.

Hello, Ecki, boop!
We try to provide all the animals at the zoo with choice. Just like for humans, there are a lot of choices that animals have to make in their lives. Choice to hunt, graze, nap, run, cool off, warm up, just to name a few. Some things we provide our animals at Australasia is the choice to be outside or inside, the opportunity to cool down with misters on a hot day, and different spaces to either be away from others or all together. Choice is just one of the ways we can provide animal welfare to the critters living here. We also provide choice when it comes to our training sessions.  Elanna always has the choice of whether to participate or not and can move back to her perch if she isn’t in the mood.
Tree kangaroos are most comfortable up high in the trees. They don’t go to the ground very often. We try to mimic their natural environment by giving them lots of options of branches at different levels. Ours spend a lot of their time on their benches that we provide and love to traverse the different levels of branch work throughout their environment. Our tree roos have participated in testing new GPS collars that are now being used by Lisa Dabek and her crew at TKCP in PNG. These collars collect data on not only home ranges, but how they use their vertical space in the trees. They are able to tell the altitude at which the tree roos are at any given point, so cool!

Woodland Park Zoo staff photo of 2018!
One thing that is prevalent in zoos all across the board is that zoo keepers are some of the most passionate people that I know. I haven’t met a keeper that hasn’t lit up talking about their animals or jumped at an opportunity to make their lives better. This is a very unique career and not meant for everyone, but those who are in it are really in it. It is a lot of hard work, it can be both physically and emotionally taxing at times, but every second is worth the moments of pure joy that you get from this career. So many keepers are involved in conservation work inside and outside of the zoo which is so cool! I love coming to work and being around like-minded people who, like me, want to do their very best for these animalsboth the ones that live here at the zoo and the ones out in the wild.

Ecki and Elanna eat veggie snacks as part of a nutritious tree kangaroo diet. VIDEO:

I love so much about my job, it is so hard to pick just one thing! I really enjoy being able to see animals do what they are built to do, naturally. Mothers doing a great job at rearing their offspring without any help from us or animals foraging for browse! It is amazing to see some of the instinctual behaviors and learned behaviors that animals share and pass on. It is one thing to read or watch something about animal behavior, but it is a whole other thing to see it in action! I also love coming up with ways to enrich the daily lives of the animals to allow them to display their natural behaviors. We have to get creative to introduce enrichment for each individual animal.  

Thank you for following along today! While I would love to introduce all of you to Ecki and Elanna, they actually live in a behind the scenes area of the zoo. Our male, Rocket, is also behind the scenes at this time. A few years ago our Day House was closed, and plans for a new space have not yet been solidified. However, you can still love tree kangaroos and support the species! If you love coffee or know someone who does, you can buy YUS coffee from Caffe Vita. The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program partners with Caffe Vita to sell coffee beans harvested by locals in Papua New Guinea. This provides them with income as part of the sustainable conservation program that TKCP is all about! Here is the link in case you are interested:

See you next time you visit the zoo!