Even in these uncertain times, taking care of the animals which live at the Ernie Miller Nature Center
is considered essential.
“Our animals are one of our most important resources here at the nature center,” said Outdoor Education Specialist Andrea Joslin. “We will continue to provide the quality care they need and hope you come see them at the nature center and/or programs once we reopen.”
Like the Johnson County Park and Recreation District’s other indoor facilities, the nature center closed to the public on March 13 as part of efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But that does not mean the center’s 37 resident animals are forgotten or neglected. “We make sure that the animals are cared for every day,” Joslin said. “We have a part-time caretaker (sometimes two) that come to do daily feeding and cleaning. Full-time staff as well as volunteers help if that person schedules a day off or is sick. We also have an emergency /disaster plan to make sure that the animals are cared for in such an event.” Animals have an important role to play for both programs and visitors at the Ernie Miller Nature Center, which first opened in 1985 and will be marking its 35th anniversary later this year.
“Animals here at the nature center are ambassadors for their species and the animal kingdom as a whole,” Joslin said. “Our animals play an important role in helping us connect the public to nature and animals. Wildlife programs like Birds of Prey, Wildlife Webs, Snakes Alive, and Kids and Critters help us teach about different concepts such as food chains, animal groups, animal myths, and animal adaptations.”
Some animals are used during programs at the center, others are part of outreach programs that go to daycare centers, preschools, schools, and senior centers, and still others are on display for the public to view when they visit.
Joslin stressed that while the nature center works with wildlife rehabilitators to provide homes at the center for some animals that cannot be rereleased into the wild, Ernie Miller Nature Center does not do wildlife rehabilitation and cannot take injured, orphaned, or wild animals from the public.
Current animal residents at the nature center include: a great horned owl, red tailed hawk, an American kestrel, screech owl, slender glass lizard, common milk snake, great plains snake, Mexican milk snake, prairie king snake, rough green snake, black rat snake, three three-toed box turtles, two ornate box turtles, a spiny softshell turtle, two eastern barred tiger salamanders, two rose-haired tarantulas, a blue gill (fish), a sunfish, speckled king snake, an American toad, two eastern grey tree frogs, two walking sticks, hissing cockroach, a domestic rabbit, opossum, and two domestic ferrets.
The center’s raptors, or birds of prey are definite favorites of nature center visitors. “I think that they are the number one favorite because they are so unique and majestic,” Joslin said. “People also don’t get to see them up close very often, if at all. The owls, hawk, and kestrel are all rescue animals. All of the raptors were wild at some point but were either permanently injured in some way or orphaned and then imprinted (or dependent on humans) and cannot be released into the wild.”
With its wide variety of animal residents, it should come as no surprise that mealtime means a very diverse menu is needed.
“We have anything from simple cat food for the ferrets and opossum to a freezer full of frozen mice, chicks, and birds of prey diet,” Joslin said. “Some of our animals eat every day, some three times a week, and the snakes eat once every other week. We have lots of fresh produce on hand, rodent chow, rabbit pellets, timothy hay, and live feeder mice that we breed for food along with crickets, meal worms, and red wiggler worms. We go through about three pounds of birds of prey diet (a fortified ground beef product), and about 12 to13 mice or chicks a week for five raptors. Every other week we feed the snakes about 12 to 17 mice. We also probably go through two to three heads of lettuce, one to two apples, one to two sweet potatoes, three to four carrots, and a container of berries and/or tomatoes.”
Caring for the animals involves a lot more than just feeding them. “We also do a lot of cleaning,” Joslin said. “That is actually what takes the most time. We spot clean every mammal and bird cage every day. We deep clean their cages once a week. For our reptiles, amphibians, insects, and spiders, we spot clean as needed and deep clean periodically. We also do a partial water change and clean the (500 gallon) aquarium once a week.”
“We do enrichment or exercise for some of the animals,” she added. “In addition there is lots of ordering and going to pet and feed stores and grocery stores for food and supplies. We work with a vet, have occasional medicines to administer, nails and beaks to trim, and we have permits that we must keep up to date. We also work with the public, a pet store, and grocery stores to get donations.”
Contingency plans are in place to make sure the nature center’s animals are cared for, and even the animals that come to the center’s outdoor feeders are still fed, while the nature center is closed for the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our plan is to continue to feed the animals at the feeders,” Joslin said. “Birds and other animals tend to return to an area that they know has a food source. If we stop feeding them, it might take a while to get them to return. Fortunately we had a lot of generous donations this past winter and we have a lot of bird seed and suet to help us keep our feeders full!”