Who’s Caring for the Park Authority’s Nature Center Animals While Parks are Closed?

It usually takes a village to care for the animals who live in the exhibits at the county’s nature centers. A combination of staff, volunteers and visitors help feed the critters and provide them with human interaction. These days, with volunteers at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, a slimmed down staff remains on the job to keep the animals healthy until park facilities reopen.

Hidden Oaks

Under normal circumstances at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Avery Gunther oversees 16 animal care volunteers, half of whom are teens gaining science experience and service hours. She normally uses two or three volunteers a day to feed 23 live animals ranging from the shy millipede to the venomous copperhead snake. The volunteers also help maintain the 17 tanks in the nature center that the reptiles, amphibians, insects, arthropods, crustaceans, and a hamster call home. Since parks were closed, Gunther now has responsibility for all the feeding, cleaning, and chatting up duties.

The nature center purchases many of the animals’ menu items, including crickets, mealworms, reptile food sticks, vegetables and fruit. Staff members raise some earthworms for feeding. Other foods are found outdoors in nature, a search that often used to fall to volunteers.

The nature center’s favorite creature is an Aussie named Spike. This bearded dragon is an engaging lizard who helps to teach compare-and-contrast lessons on subjects such as desert vs. woodland animals and dinosaurs vs. reptiles. Although he looks like a fierce dinosaur, he is a crowd favorite – especially when mealworm treats are on the menu.

With fewer people in the nature center, Gunther believes the animals may be a little more relaxed these days because nobody is forgetting the guidelines and tapping on aquariums and vivariums. It’s a good reminder to visitors to be on their best behavior when the nature center reopens!

With visitors gone, it’s a bit easier to do some of the deep cleaning of tanks. However, cleaning larger tanks, especially the snapping turtle indoor pond, has become a bigger challenge since this is usually a two-person job that takes several hours.

While the nature center’s doors are closed, Gunther has been sending updates to the 23 sponsors who have virtually adopted individual site critters by providing funds to help with feeding and vet bills. With more than 33 years of experience with the Park Authority, Gunther is sharing her knowledge, skills and abilities with young and old, human and reptile, vegetarian and carnivore.

Hidden Pond

Hidden Pond Nature Center cares for 35 animals, including snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, spiders, and fish in its displays. Since the COVID-19 closure, staffer Brian Umanzor has been handling much of the animal care and exhibit upkeep, with a little help from the site manager and a seasonal employee. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the area, most of the feedings and about half of the exhibit upkeep duties were carried out by volunteers.

Most of the foods used for mealtime are purchased from local pet shops or suppliers. For the aquatic species that eat fish, the nature center prefers catching its own fish to reduce the risk of spreading a disease in the tanks from fish bought at pet shops. The main worry is fungal infections spreading from critters, such as goldfish, into the nature center’s aquatic set-ups. There are some risks from wild-caught fish, too, but the nature center has had good success with its current procedures.

Visitors to Hidden Pond are often given the opportunity to interact with the animals during visits, through programs, and at events such as nature-themed birthday parties. Manager Mike McCaffrey doesn’t think the animals are reacting in any negative way to being handled less. He notes that many of the animals on exhibit are former “pets” that have been donated to the center. They have long been acclimated to being around people and should have no problem when visitors return.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) has 13 animals on display to help educate and engage the public. There is a painted turtle, common snapping turtle, copperhead, Eastern rat snake, corn snake, bull frog and yellow bullhead catfish. The park has two five-lined skinks, two red-eared sliders and two grey tree frogs.

In the past, there have been 8 to 12 student volunteers helping care for the animals under the direction of the animal care supervisor, Justin Lott. It’s an opportunity for the students to gain experience and earn service hours. Currently, Lott is working with park staff to handle animal care.

The meals aren’t likely to sound too appealing to you, but the snakes and snapping turtle enjoy eating previously frozen mice of various sizes. The catfish gets bottom-feeder specific food tabs, and the turtles get food sticks. The frogs and skinks get crickets. The turtles and bull frog dine on earthworms, too. Some of the food fed to the animals is purchased from pet stores, while earthworms and other small invertebrates are readily available by searching outside.

While ECLP has been missing its volunteers, the staff is making sure there is always someone available to handle animal care at the visitor center. Lott has been coming in regularly to care for the venomous copperhead snake, which needs specific care performed only by trained staff. Routine feedings and animal care are performed whether or not visitors are present. In the past, any tank changes and filter cleanings were usually done when the visitor center was closed.

The exhibit turtles react to people when they are near because they associate people with meals. With no public visitors these days, the turtles get excited when they see the only person coming in for the day to feed them. Long-term, the lack of human activity may have an impact on the park’s ability to keep its snakes accustomed to being handled regularly with groups. Having a snake that is calm and used to being handled is important to the success of many of the park’s programs for visitors.

Whenever visitors return to the parks, the animals will be ready and waiting for the extra company.

Author Carol Ochs compiled this story with the assistance of Hidden Oaks Visitor Services Manager Suzanne Holland, Hidden Pond Manager Mike McCaffrey and ECLP Naturalist/Scout Coordinator Lara Dolata.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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