Brevard Zoo: Please Do Feed The Animals
By Robert Hughes // May 1, 2012
Guests experience hands-on animal encounters
BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – “Oh my word.” That was Janice Newton’s shocked reaction when she got to the platform where people get to feed the giraffes at the Brevard Zoo.
She just wasn’t expecting to be looking straight into the eye of the stop sign-sized face of Raffiki, the zoo’s biggest giraffe. He stands more than 16 feet tall, but he greets human visitors to the 10-foot-high platform at eye-level .
Newton’s three young boys were wide-eyed and backed off a bit as they neared the creature they had been so excited about meeting.
“Just look!” their dad Ray said. “Their feet are way down there.” Ray moved forward to point down toward the rest of the giraffe’s body. But it seemed more like he was trying to convince himself of the hard-to-fathom truth of the animal’s height, rather than the children he was addressing.
Janice Newton quickly bought crackers to offer the African giant. Her middle child went first, but was too timid to hold the cracker long enough for the giraffe to reach it and it fell to the floor for another attempt.
Her oldest boy stepped up to show he could get it done, but he couldn’t hold back a squeal when the animal’s big purple tongue – which can be up to 18 inches long – touched his finger.
It was quite an experience for the New York family vacationing in Cocoa Beach.
“We were excited about getting to feed the giraffes, but we didn’t know it would be like this,” Janice Newton said. “And they’re so beautiful.”
Many of the comments about the giraffes coming from the dozens of people gathered on the platform regarded their “big, doe-like eyes” and “long eyelashes” as well as their friendly demeanor.
So Raffiki and the four other “adult” giraffes that gather near the platform to get their treats impress visitors with their beauty as well as their shocking size, so up-close and personal.
The Brevard Zoo says it gives visitors the opportunity to hand-feed animals like the giraffes and certain other animals is because “a chance to feed an animal is a great experience for patrons, providing a personal connection with the natural world.”
Perhaps more simply, the feedings are a great deal of fun.
And they’re so popular that they provide a lot of help toward paying the non-profit zoo’s bills. The crackers and pieces of vegetables for the giraffes cost a dollar each, while other feedings – for birds or fish, for instance – cost as little as 25 cents.
By the end of the year, it adds up to more than $500,000 in proceeds. So the fun pays off.
Meanwhile, over at the zoo’s aviary, human shrieks can be heard above the birds’ squawks because the birds get even closer than many expect when they’re being fed.
“Ooh, I didn’t know they would do that,” Melissa Durban of Cleveland said when a trio of colorful birds landed on her shoulders after she walked into the aviary with a small cup of fruit juice for them. She wanted them off immediately, but a young girl approached to ask, “How do you get them to land on you like that?”
The girl found out soon enough, as a pair of lorikeets lighted on her arm to compete for the juice cup she was holding and she could barely resist the urge to shoo them away herself before relaxing and enjoying her new friends so close-up.
For a dollar, visitors get small cups of juice for the lorikeets in one area or sticks with seeds stuck on them for the somewhat more sedate cockatiels on another side.
“Oh, I’d love to take them home,” Durban finally admitted after getting used to the idea of the birds zooming by her head.
Getting so close to the animals seems to make visitors think of them more as pets they could treat like family, rather than being creatures to be admired only from afar.
“That’s what I love about this place,” Durban said. “It’s a small zoo, but you feel like you’re right with the animals.”
The feeding by visitors is a special treat for the animals, who appear to enjoy interaction with humans, too. But the real feeding is done behind the scenes, where workers spend 17 hours preparing 210 individual diets daily, for appetites ranging from mice to rhinos.
Recently, the zoo opened a new commissary that allows much more room for food storage and preparation.
“Oh, I just love it,” Barbara Judd said. “It used to be, I couldn’t even turn around” in the tight space she had to work in before.
She spoke while chopping vegetables and fruit for a salad that looked appetizing until she topped it off with a handful of worms.
“Looks delicious, doesn’t it?” she joked.
The giraffes that give visitors such a thrill to feed need a lot more sustenance than crackers and carrots.
Each full-grown giraffe can put away 75 or so pounds of food a day, mostly alfalfa and hay. The food tab comes to about $5,500 per year per giraffe.
The zoo’s four rhinos – which weigh more than two tons each — are the biggest eaters, with an annual feeding cost of almost $8,000 per animal.
Clearly, the massive vegetarians love to it. However, if you catch Howard the rhino’s amazingly spry little dance when he’s led into his enclosure in the mornings, you might think it’s like the family dog’s dance when he gets fed in the morning.
However, according to Onya Navarre, one of his handlers, he’s more excited about seeing his company.
“He really gets excited about getting be with Uzuri and Kibibi (the female rhinos) – as well as us (humans), too,” she said.
Zoo visitors also can get closer to the remarkably amiable rhinos — but not to feed them.
During daily “rhino encounters,” they get to stand beside the animals behind a barricade and stroke their rough hides with brushes. The rhinos clearly love the attention.
Like a dog
Zoo keeper Mike Wheeler demonstrated by brushing Howard just in front of his rear leg, leading the giant to curl his tail upward and lift his leg like a dog does when patted.
Pointing out the animal’s serene, eyes-shut look, Wheeler said, “He looks so relaxed, I sometimes feel I could push him right over.”
Over in the Selva section of the zoo, jungle critters like spider monkeys and pygmy marmosets cavort in their spacious cages, sometimes making quite a racket.
One of the noisiest at meal time, however, is Gemma, a Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot.
Sounding not unlike a crazed woman, Gemma screams nonsensical phrases that sound rather clear, but aren’t really.
The zoo keepers who deal with her daily find themselves singing the vocal bird’s phrases like well-rehearsed rap lyrics.
“A jaguar, a jaguar, and an iguana,” a keeper sang in time with one of Gemma’s repeated refrains.
Zoo keeper Nikki Maginness can’t help but memorize the bird’s silly screams because she hears them daily.
But she explained that Gemma shows the most excitement simply when she has company, rather than for any food.
“And the monkeys are just like that, too,” she said.
The keepers do try to bring in new objects of interest for the animals so their days won’t approach the drudgery of, say, just another day at the office.
For instance, they’ll place food in cardboard tubes or frilly wrapping paper to engage their interest.
It’s an effort called “enrichment,” and the ploy worked especially well over the Easter holiday, as keepers watched the critters get excited about painted decorations and new toys, and so much so, they sometimes didn’t realize there was food inside them.
“Oh, we’ll put like a box out there for the apes, and they’ll be scared at first,” Navarre said. “They won’t go near it. But after a while, they’ll get the nerve up to check it out. And then they’ll just tear it up and then pretty much forget about it.”
Back at the African platform, Raffiki has backed away from the cracker offerings and gotten into his occasional routine of just staring solemnly at the scene of humans who, in turn, wonder why he won’t come forward for more treats.
Through their eyes
Cindy Young, who volunteers to man the platform on Mondays, tries to see through her tall friend’s eyes.
“I often wonder what he’s thinking when he’s like that,” she said. “You know, they’re not used to seeing anything at their own eye level, so he’s probably wondering how in the world we got up this high.”
Visitors clearly do get a high when they get the opportunity to get close to such amazing animals at the Brevard Zoo, and it’s an even better deal knowing the proceeds go to keeping them alive – and in turn enjoying their own curious human company.
The zoo is open daily open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. rain or shine. The last admission is at 4:15 p.m. daily.
The Brevard Zoo is ½ mile east of I-95, Exit 191, in Melbourne at 8225 North Wickham Road.