Santa Fe Zoo celebration of Zookeeper Week highlighted how much zoos have changed

White-Handed Gibbon at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo photographed on Oct. 21, 2021 in Gainesville , FL. (Photo by Matt Stamey/Santa Fe College) ***Subjects have Signed Photo Releases***

BY ANA MATTIUZZI, Alachua Chronicle Correspondent

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Just like any other student, Abbi Wagstaff packs herself food for a long day of classes. Just like any other student, her day consists of long hours of studying and engaging with classmates. Unlike most students, however, some of those classmates include White-Handed Gibbons: Cajun, Gibson, and Holmes.

Abbi Wagstaff, 20, is part of the Zoo Animal Technology Program at Santa Fe College and gets to be a zookeeper for school.

Over the weekend of July 23-24, the college hosted interactive events for family and animal lovers alike in honor of Zookeeper Appreciation Week. “The purpose of this weekend is to educate people,” Wagstaff said. “I think it really highlights how much zoos have changed and evolved. They are progressively getting better and we’re learning so much and doing so much more. We’re involved in not only helping our animals live the best lives they can but also helping their wild counterparts.”

The event, which happens every year during the third week of July, took place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.

Wagstaff is originally from Chandler, Arizona, and said it was her first year participating in the event. “I’ve been an animal person my whole life. This program is really cool because it brings animal people together from all over the country,” Wagstaff said.

Santa Fe’s 10-acre zoo is the only zoo on a college campus accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the country. It is home to more than 70 species of animals and is maintained by the students enrolled in SF’s Zoo Animal Technology program.

The events allow the public to step into the zookeeper’s shoes. They can hold wild animals, such as snakes and tortoises, watch trained zookeepers feed and maintain enclosures, and learn about wildlife conservation.

Representatives from all over Florida lined up facing the entrance; most of them graduated from Santa Fe’s Zoo Animal Technology program. The organizations visiting included: Alachua Conservation Trust, Alachua County Solid Waste & Resource Recovery, Busch Gardens & SeaWorld, Florida State Parks, Florida Conservation Corps, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and ZooTampa.

Galyn Williams and Blake Hicks graduated from the Santa Fe program in 2016 and came back to represent ZooTampa. Williams works as a bird and mammal keeper; Hicks specializes in animal nutrition. They both said the program helped them get the jobs they currently have: “It provides practical experience that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Hicks.

Elio Piedra, a Cuban DJ and percussionist, set the mood by playing pop-Latin remixes. Guests could enjoy lunch from the Mayflower Food Truck and cold desserts from Feliz Flavors Ice Cream. There were face-painting and puppet shows for the kids.

The school hosted presentations every 30 minutes, including “keeper talks” and training demonstrations, which taught about specific animals at the zoo. Stations around the premises independently taught guests fun facts about the animals. The sound station, for example, taught visitors how to identify animal sounds: “That’s an alligator? That’s something that lives in my backyard, and it sounds like a dinosaur? Like, that’s amazing!” said Jorge Mañach, a participant.

Two years ago, Ryan Niles came to Florida from Spokane, Washington, to visit his dad. He planned to go back home and enroll at Washington State University. But after attending the event that summer, he decided this was the path for him. He was recently chosen to be a Capuchin trainer at the zoo.

The event also highlighted Santa Fe’s conservation efforts, such as the breeding and reintroduction of the Perdido Key beach mouse, Peromyscus polionotus trissyllepsis, an endangered species native only to the Florida panhandle, explained Yeliz Ozdemir and Emily Barbay, students at SF Zoo.

The event was funded by Visit Gainesville, Alachua County.

Tickets were bought at the entrance and the price varied. Adults paid $8. Seniors, active military and veterans, teachers, police, firefighters, first responders, healthcare workers and students paid $5.