Last Thanksgiving (2012), several of our family members joined me for a guided Behind-The-Scenes Tour at the Desert Museum. This was truly a joyous learning experience. Each tour is limited to only ten people, so there’s plenty of opportunity to ask questions of the zookeeper guides. And because each tour permits us to get very close to the critters, they offer amazing photographic opportunities.
There are four tour options. We intend to go on each tour before the 2013 ends.
Hummingbird On Arm Of Photographer. Photo courtesy of Raven, one of our favorite local photographers.
Winged Wonders (Hummingbird Tour). This is an opportunity for a select few to learn about how the zookeepers care for these winged wonders. There may even be an opportunity to feed some of them. They say that if we wear bright colors, the little fellers will be especially attracted to us. If you go, let us know if this worked for you.
Reptile, Amphibians, and Invertebrates Tour. This will be our opportunity to interact with some of the Sonoran Desert’s many snakes, lizards, frogs, and spiders, including tarantulas.
Zookeeper For A Day: On this tour we can spend a morning working with a zookeeper in the Mammalogy and Ornithology Department. Here we will assist with feeding and cleaning exhibits while learning natural history and husbandry of some of the Sonoran Desert’s indigenous species.
Walk On The Wild Side. This is the tour we went on last Thanksgiving. We went behind the scenes at Cat Canyon, Big Horn Sheep Mountain, and the Coati exhibit.
Our tour started at the otter pond where 10 of us met our zookeeper guide, Debra Benson. There used to be two otters here, but one died. And while Debra tried to entice the one remaining otter out of her den so we could feed it, she was unsuccessful.
Before we moved on to Big Horn Sheep Mountain, I wondered what happened to the animals here who are too sick or old to be exhibited. Debra explained that when the Desert Museum takes an animal, it’s a commitment for the remainder of the animal’s natural life. They actually have a retirement community on the Desert Museum property where old and disabled animals go to live out their lives in relaxed comfort. Kinda like the animal kingdom’s version of Social Security and Medicare.
I told this big male that if he would smile for my camera, I would give him a carrot. He got the carrot.
Next, we watched the big horn sheep leap down from their mountaintop so they could get a treat. They seemed to recognize Debra because as soon as we arrived the two females and one big male were suddenly alert to our presence. Debra gave us some carrots to throw into their exhibit area, and the sheep were almost immediately on ground level.
Grandson Colby asked Debra why the sheep don’t slip on the slick rock surface. After all, it is hard to imagine other hoofed mammals, such as a horse or donkey, being that surefooted. Debra explained that the bottoms of their hoofs are soft pads that actually grip the rock surface. I didn’t know that. Did you?
Our next stop was in the underground area where anyone can go to see the beaver and otter in their respective dens. But then, Debra opened a door I had never noticed before that led into an underground chamber.
After she closed the door behind us, she showed us some of the tools of her trade. Most interesting to me was all the toys zookeepers use to keep the caged animals mentally active and emotionally engaged. That made me feel better about keeping wild animals confined to a relatively small area.
We followed Debra deeper into this underground room. Here we approached what looked like a maximum security prison with heavy-gauge wire and steel bars. Debra pulled some levers and a heavy metal door opened. One of the female big horn sheep was on the other side to greet us.
Debra gave Colby and some of the others some vegetation to feed to the sheep. It wasn’t long before the big guy showed up and wanted his share. They all knew the routine.
At the next stop we visited the coati exhibit area. We have been here many times over the years, but almost never spot the coati, whom the Desert Museum assures us are always there. At the sight of Debra, two coati came out from behind the bushes. She threw them a couple of fishes while she shared some interesting information about this native species.
For one thing, coati will eat almost anything. For another, unlike their cousin, the raccoon, coati are not nocturnal. They spend their days foraging for food, such as berries, nuts, lizards, bugs, rodents, and bird eggs. They are highly gregarious and communicate using verbal signals.
I asked Debra what the difference is between a coati and a coatimundi. She explained that all coati are coati, but a coatimundi is a solitary adult male. There you have it.
From the front of the exhibit, we went literally behind the scenes and entered a secret door that led to the coati backstage. Several coati greeted us and seemed to be expecting something interesting to happen.
A coati at the Desert Museum. They have two kinds of coati that are only slightly different in appearance. Zookeeper Debra explained the differences.
Debra took a bottle of men’s cologne and dabbed some on a tissue. She then slipped the scented tissue through the wire cage. Immediately, one of the coati grabbed it and began rubbing the scent on his tail.
I asked Debra if coati were particularly attracted to men’s cologne. She told us that they exhibit this same behavior no matter what the scent is. As we turned our attention back to the group of coati behind the screen, the one with the scented tissue was now carrying it around on his back showing off to the other inmates. We all had a good laugh.
I wish I had known in advance because, while this was happening, I and my camera were totally out of position. You’ll have to go to see for yourselves.
From the coati backstage we made our way to Cat Canyon, one of our family’s favor exhibits. The first thing Debra did was go into the exhibition area of the porcupine named Nettles. She did her best to coax Nettles out of its den so we could watch her feed the prickly critter, but Nettles was having none of it. We moved on to another underground chamber adjacent to the bobcat exhibit.
Here Debra had some interesting things to say about bobcat training. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, so you’ll just have to go on this tour and see for yourselves. However, there was nothing surprising about the bobcats’ reaction to Debra putting a dead mouse through the thick wire cage.
There was a great deal more to this tour, but I’m not going to spoil it for you. For more info about the four tours, go to the Desert Museum’s website. The price of each tour, in addition to the cost of admission, is $35 per person. However, if you go to our SouthernArizonaGuide.com, you can get a $5 discount. Just click on the Desert Museum display ad.
Let us know about your experience behind the scenes at the Desert Museum.