Sometimes the zookeeper feeds Misty, the tiger, raw meat out of her own hand. (Photo by Kamira Patel)

Lions and tigers and ferrets! Oh, my!

It was junior Kamira Patel’s first day, but she had to pass the hazing. She had two choices: the tarantula or the cockroach.

She hates cockroaches, but she loathes spiders. Hesitantly, she reached out her hand, and the Madagascar hissing cockroach crawled onto her palm.

This was five years ago, when Patel was 11 years old, and she has been volunteering at the Folsom Zoo Sanctuary ever since.

“I want to be a veterinarian, and I love working with wild animals,” Patel said.

But working at the zoo is not a glamorous job.

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning—the day before Thanksgiving.

Patel starts the day in the food prep room or “the kitchen,” as the volunteers call it.

The left wall is dominated by a long counter with stainless steel bowls with different animals’ names on them. Above the counter, cabinets are stuffed with vitamins and measuring cups.

On the outside of the cabinets, the “diets” of all the animals are posted for the volunteers to follow.

The smell of raw meat lingers in the air and is concentrated around the walk-in refrigerator and freezer that houses hundreds of dead birds, mice and rats.

Along with the sheer amount of raw meat, there is a plethora of vegetables and fruits from Trader Joe’s.

“We don’t give them any food that we as humans wouldn’t want to eat,” Patel said.

But, of course, not all the food is found in human diets.

Patel wrinkles her nose as she scoops out a hefty serving of meal worms, yellowish-brown with shiny, wiggling bodies that resemble maggots.

“This is the worst part of the job,” Patel said.

Yet working with cute little animals like the ferrets makes it worth it.

The ferrets Cinnamon and August dance around  as Patel sets their monogrammed bowls in the cage.

After she is done preparing the food, she leaves for the “classroom,” where the Zoo Ambassador Program (ZAP) is held, and where Lily the tortoise and Holly the prairie dog are housed.

Patel was introduced to the zoo here, when she started doing summer camp at age 11. Campers are taught about different types of animals and arts and crafts.

Like all animals at the zoo, Lily and Holly were taken in by the center because they needed a home.

“Folsom Sanctuary only accepts animals that have been illegally kept or injured in the wild,” Patel said.

Founded in 1963, the zoo currently houses almost 90 animals. Two-hundred volunteers aid six zookeepers, who care for all the animals.

Sharifa Moore, assistant zookeeper and rental coordinator, has been working with Patel at the zoo for over three years.

She describes Patel as “dedicated and caring.”

In addition to making sure the animals are properly fed and cleaned up after, Patel must keep them from being bored in their enclosures. During my visit to the classroom, Lily spent most of her time burrowing in dirt and sifting through newspaper that the volunteers had put in her enclosure as “enrichment”—anything that can be used to distract the animals or keep them busy.

Enrichment ranges from newspaper shreddings for the tortoises to perfume sprayed in the cages of the wolf hybrids (dogs that are more than 50-percent wolf).

Dogs are sensitive to smells, and any smell that is foreign interests them, Patel said.

“Sometimes we put cinnamon in the animals’ cages to entertain them,” Patel said. “They always like to roll around in it.

“Once I had to take a whole raw fish and smear it around the bear habitat with my bare hands. It smelled awful.”

A large canvas hangs on the wall of the classroom, comprised of colorful paw prints and glitter.

This painting, another enrichment project, is made from the animals walking in paint and then on the canvas.

When Patel was in zoo camp, before she started volunteering, they made a piñata filled with grapes, peanut butter, peanuts, apples, carrots, lettuce, celery and dog kibble for the bears as enrichment.

After cleaning Lily’s cage, Patel moves on to Holly, the prairie dog.

She sanitizes the cage, sweeps the floor around it, takes the dirty newspaper and old food to the garbage and swiftly moves on to the next animal.

At this point I began to wonder, why would someone want to spend their time cleaning up after all these animals? Why come here on a cold rainy day of vacation rather than curling up on the couch and watching a movie?

It wasn’t until I returned four days later to follow Patel again that I began to understand the appeal.

While Patel was cleaning out a squirrel cage, I wandered around the zoo.

A few exhibits down I heard a zookeeper coo, “Good girl, Misty,” and a cat purring.

But this was no house cat.

It was a tiger, and the zookeeper was feeding her raw meat out of the palm of her hand.

“Each animal has its own personality, and over time you get to know each of them personally,” Patel said.

Patel’s favorite animals are the wolf hybrids because although they are wolves, they still have the caring personality of dogs.

Even though the wolf hybrids are threatening animals, she said she never feels insecure about working with them.

Moore praises Patel’s ability to handle herself around large, potentially dangerous animals.

“She has had personal and firsthand knowledge and experience with animals and their health; she’ll make a great veterinarian when she’s ready,” Moore said.

“She’s an incredibly hard worker who never complains—except when she’s stepped in poo. But you can’t blame her. After eight years, I still complain about stepping in poo.”

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