Feeding Time at Zoo America

Meet Butch. Handsome boy. Sweet brown eyes. Like any 16-year-old, he enjoys sleeping, snacking and swimming, though he refuses to get his ears wet.

He gets along well with his sister Sally. Honey smeared on hot-dog rolls is a favorite treat, and he goes ape over red grapes.

Of course, those grapes must be tendered one at a time, on the end of a stick and through a cage because it never pays to stick your fingers into the jaws of a 500-pound black bear.

Other than that, and the pungent bear smell that assaults your nose, Butch is a real sweetheart.

Adventure Chick was zookeeper for a day at Hersheypark’s ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park. The morning began in the kitchen. No stove – just a sink, massive chest freezer and fridge.

Raw chicken on counters. Sunflower seeds in bins. Dare to peek into the freezer, and you’re rewarded with the sight of plastic bags full of mice and quail, thoroughly dead and packed so very neatly for the peregrine falcons and other birds of prey that eat nothing but birds and rodents.

Did I spy guinea pig in there? Repeat after me: “It’s the circle of life. It’s the circle of life.”

On this lovely early fall day, the bears – rescued at 2 years old from a moron who kept them as pets – had already started building their fat reserves for winter. In the kitchen, the zookeepers track grams fed and leftovers remaining each day.

The bear sheet showed a row of zeroes in the “leftovers” column. A typical day’s diet: beef, fish, apples, sweet potatoes, oranges.

Oranges? Yogi Bear never ate oranges.

My experience with wild animals is limited to pleading with our feuding tiger cats, Bubba and Sweeney, to just get along for once. Oh, and the time our late, beloved cat, Mickey, put me in the hospital for four days, including St. Patrick’s Day, but that’s another story.

Somehow, it all pales in comparison to stepping into a cage and looking over your left shoulder at a bobcat looming on a shelf overhead. Cats leap, you know.

These particular bobcats, though, might be curious about visitors but tend to keep their distance when the food arrives, naturalist Ann Holzman assured me.

While she tied a bag full of meat shards and a Hotel Hershey-leftover steak bone to a tree – gives the kitties something to play with and forage for – I tossed a bone on the ground.

We talked cats. Holzman shared her epiphany from watching a tiger playing with a ball at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“To watch your housecat and watch a tiger display similar behaviors is just amazing,” she said. “A cat is a cat is a cat.”

Sure. The lynx named Woody, the guy with the massive paws that act like snowshoes, ripping a bag off a tree and tearing it to shreds to get to the fish inside, is just like my Sweeney. While lynxes Woody and Willow paced their locked den, I placed a dead mouse on a tree trunk.

A squishy, cold, floppy, icky, gross, dead mouse. Circle of life, it’s the circle of life.

ZooAmerica is home to more than 60 species, 200 animals total. All are from North America, organized by region across 11 sloping acres. Many are rescues, either in rehab or “non-releasable,” said Holzman.

We stopped to marvel at the magnificent bald eagle, the one missing part of her left wing because someone inexplicably – and illegally – shot at her.

“Luckily, somebody found her,” said Holzman. “No one should ever be shooting at, obviously, bald eagles, but also any eagles, hawks, falcons, owls. There’s never a hunting season on birds of prey.”

Some residents are acquired from other zoos’ “surplus lists” – extra newborns, or those that are incompatible with cage mates. Ethel the river otter clashed with another female at her old zoo and arrived in Hershey on anxiety meds.

Now, she’s serene and swimming happily in her pond. She didn’t know it, but she had a new friend arriving soon, a 5-year-old male acquired from a Minnesota breeder.

OK, otters aren’t scary. They’re adorable. Holzman, a Penn State graduate with a biology major and wildlife minor, loves the variety of creatures she tends. Her morning rounds take her from otter to bobcat, bear to lynx, screech owl to marten.

The zoo has two martens, which are weasels that climb, unlike their swimming cousins, the otter. The playful Steve toyed with us, coming close but darting away. His brother Dean ran circles when the lynxes prowled the neighboring cage.

You caught that, right? Steve Marten and Dean Marten.

“I did not name them,” Holzman swore.

At each exhibit, Holzman could spy animals without even seeming to look in their direction. The bobcat on her shelf. Butch the bear lurking in his den. The snowy owl in her usual spot behind a mound of tall grass.

Knowing their habits helps Holzman track their well-being. “Animals are so good at hiding when they are sick, because they have to in the wild,” she said.

“Any illness makes them vulnerable.” Changes in routine are “the little cues that say maybe we should take a closer look.”

And then there’s Butch – lovable, lumbering Butch. Spear a grape on a stick, and he’s putty in your paws. Holzman showed how he’s been trained to open his mouth – say “open,” and make an opening gesture with thumb and fingers – for dental check-ups.

I tried. Didn’t work. I’ve got to work on my gesturing. But he gladly put snout to cage, and sometimes a paw, to savor each succulent grape offered.

Black bears aren’t dangerous to humans, Holzman said. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the bear compound’s maximum-security measures – barred doors, multiple locks, electric fence. Maybe bears are dangerous to bobcats and martens.

“We’re going to make little sandwiches,” Holzman said. She opened hot dog rolls and squirted in honey (I knew Yogi Bear couldn’t be wrong). “Are you willing to spread some treats?”

Oh, yeah. I’m walking around a bears’ backyard, dropping honey sandwiches on rocks. Of course, the bears were locked away, but as soon as they were released, Butch ambled out and headed straight for the first honey sandwich I placed on a big gray rock.

He even found one I cleverly tucked in a log. “Bears are very intelligent,” Holzman said. ZooAmerica’s residents are “ambassadors of their species,” she said.

Many are threatened in the wild – even endangered, like the thick-billed parrot – but have been known to breed here.

Toward its mission of promoting conservation and caring for endangered species, the zoo’s education programs teach kids and adults how to co-habit with our furry and feathered friends, from the black-footed ferret that supports prairie-dog ecosystems to the bat that eats 3,000 insects a night.

As we left the exhibits, Holzman recalled a woman who learned the importance of bats – creepy, scary bats – and swore she’d never kill a bat again. “There are so many myths,” Holzman said. Little lessons “make a huge difference.”

“Maybe that one person got what we were trying to explain,” she said. “It can be very gratifying when you have people who understand that message.”