January 16, 2011
meet the anteater keeper
Giant anteaters have been on exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. since 1907. Today, the zoo is home to two adults and a brand new baby boy, born on December 7th. Watching over these creatures great and small is Marie Magnuson, one of the zoo’s animal keepers. Magnuson was gracious enough to answer some questions I had about her job, the anteaters she cares for, and a major scare involving the zoo’s newest pup.
OA: How did you first become interested in giant anteaters?
MM: Seeing an anteater in the wild has always been on my “bucket list.” They are just such beautiful animals and so unlike anything else. I've been employed at the National Zoo since 1999, but volunteered for about seven years before that. When I learned that we would be getting giant anteaters here, and that I would be part of the team caring for them, I was over the moon.
OA: The National Zoo currently houses two adult giant anteaters, Dante and Maripi. What are they like? Do they have any “personality” traits?
MM: You need to work with them a while to really get to know them, but they definitely each have their own personality. Their facial expressions never change, so you have to pay attention to body language when working with them. Maripi is very relaxed and easygoing. The only time I have seen her upset is when she hears an alarm cry from her pup. Dante is a little more easily upset. Unlike Maripi, who was born at the Nashville Zoo, Dante was born in the wild and taken as a youngster to be part of a breeding program here in the U.S. So I think that may be the reason.
OA: You’ve written previously that anteaters don’t do all that much thinking. Indeed, they have pretty small brains for their body size. Is there anything you can teach them? Do they get used to routines at all?
MM: It depends on what you mean by “teach”. Dante can target. This means that we can hold a pole, tap the ground with the end, say “Target!” and Dante will go to the end of the pole and put his nose against it. This is very handy when weighing him. Sometimes Maripi remembers how to target and sometimes, well…
A lot of the training we do with the anteaters is to desensitize them to being in close proximity to humans and to tolerate being touched. We’re hoping that they will allow “voluntary“ medical procedures. Maripi is great with this, and we have been able to ultrasound her through all three pregnancies. This tolerance to handling made a big difference when the last baby was born. We were able to place the baby right where it needed to be to nurse because of the level of trust we had built up with her.
Dante, as I mentioned, is a little more nervous about all this touchy-feely stuff. We’re working toward a voluntary echocardiogram with him, but for our safety we have trained him to sit up and hold onto a heavy board that remains between us. He’s also received “man training” to make him more tolerant of men, whom he associates with the sound of power tools. All the keepers in our unit are women, so the only time he would hear men’s voices was when craftsmen would come to fix something, and all the banging and the drills frightened him. He blamed the men. Anyway, soothing words and plenty of treats has helped a lot.
OA: How many giant anteaters have been born at the National Zoo?
MM: Dante and Maripi are the only anteaters to have successfully bred here in Washington. The male pup born in December is their third baby together. The first was a female named Aurora, who is now at ZooParc du Beauval in France. Next came a male named Cyrano, who is now at the Nashville Zoo. The new baby [pictured below] will be with Maripi for at least 10-12 more months.
OA: You had a scare with the most recent pup. Can you describe what happened and how he’s doing now?
MM: Scare is right! There is a detailed description on the zoo’s website, but briefly: After what appeared to be a normal birth, one night we found the baby outside the sleeping crate in the morning. He was cold and unresponsive. Immediate steps were taken to start to warm him up and to transport both him and his mother to the Vet hospital. He was reintroduced to his mom, and she has been taking care of him ever since, with very little assistance from us. It turned out that the camera that was supposed to be recording activity overnight was on the fritz, so we’ll never know for sure what caused this to happen. But both Maripi and the baby are back at the anteater barn and doing very well. His weight is on a level with the other babies we have had here and he seems normal in every respect. He is the quietest anteater baby we’ve had and almost never alarm calls.
OA: When do you think the pup will be able to go outside and meet the public?
MM: As soon as we get some warm weather. I was hoping that after an unusually cold December we might be treated to a mild January, but so far no luck.
OA: What is the best part about your job as an anteater keeper?
MM: I’d have to say the level of trust that I mentioned earlier. Our unit also cares for tigers, bears, and lions, as well as several other smaller species. They are all wonderful, but being able to work so closely with the anteaters is really special.
OA: Do you have any tips for someone who might be interested in a career working with captive animals—anteater or otherwise?
MM: Get as much hands-on experience as possible. Most of the job is just that—a job. There is hosing and cleaning and food prep, and you work holidays and weekends, sometimes in terrible weather conditions, and that is 95 percent of the job. If the other 5 percent, the part that takes your breath away, makes you forget the not-so-glamorous part, then I say “Go for it!” But you might want to find out first by volunteering.
OA: Last question: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you relating to giant anteaters?
MM: Well, one day when giving Maripi a bath—she loves baths and you can see her on the National Zoo’s YouTube page—she farted and blew bubbles in her bath water. That’s the kind of sophisticated humor we go in for around here. •>~