HAWAII AT WORK
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tyris Perreira has been an animal keeper at Honolulu Zoo for almost 13 years. Above, she visited last weekend with Vai Gai and Mari, the Indian elephants she used to care for before being promoted in September and moving to a different section of the zoo.
It’s all happening at the zoo
Tyris Perreira works with a bunch of animals, and we're not talking about the people she supervises
Title: Zoo Animal Keeper II
Job: Supervises and assists 13 other workers who take care of the animals and facilities in the savanna section of Honolulu Zoo
TYRIS Perreira probably wishes that, like the famous Dr. Dolittle, she could "walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals," because, in her case, it would certainly make her job a lot easier. But as an animal keeper at Honolulu Zoo, Perreira enjoys her job anyway, and still has managed during her almost 13 years at the facility to bond with several of its celebrated denizens, including elephants Vai Gai and Mari and Rusti the orangutan. She started at the zoo as a volunteer, then an intern, while getting a bachelor's degree in animal science at the University of Hawaii. The Kamehameha Schools graduate also worked, and still works part time, at a veterinary clinic. When not at work, the single mother, 38, lives in Kalihi with her 9-year-old son and a house full of pets.
Question: What is your job title?
Answer: Zoo Animal Keeper II.
Q: How many animals do you take care of?
A: Animals and people?
Q: You take care of people?
A: Yeah, I'm a working foreman, so we supervise the people in the savanna section. That's what I do. Then each section takes care of the animals.
Q: So what exactly is your job description?
A: We're working foremen, so we have to supervise the Keeper I's -- that's what they're called. I supervise the Keeper I's in the savanna area.
Q: How many people is that?
A: I think we have 13, including the (two) night keepers.
Q: What do the Keeper I's do?
A: They're out there taking care of the animals, cleaning the exhibits, observing them for medical purposes, then they relay to us. We do all that, too; if it's shortstaffed, we fill in.
Q: Do you have a lot of paperwork as a supervisor?
A: Not really. We go out into the field to make sure everything is moving along smoothly. Any supplies our keepers need, we make sure they get that. Any maintenance work needed, we're responsible to set that up. In turn, we work under our specialist, and that is Richard Ball.
Q: How long have you been with the savanna section?
A: I just got promoted in September. Prior to that I was working with the elephants and orangutan in the mammal section. I was also a swing for the nightkeeper in the savanna section.
Q: Aren't the animals in the savanna section mammals?
A: Yeah. We just broke it down because I guess it was too big of a group for one Keeper II.
Q: Which animals are you taking care of in the savanna?
A: We have giraffes, one white rhinoceros, two zebras, two ostriches, and that's one section. In the other section we have three lions, three African wild dogs, three hyenas, two black rhinoceros, and two meerkats.
Q: What are meerkats?
A: Those are the little ... Did you see the "Lion King?" There's a warthog and a meerkat that told the story.
Then in the next section there's a cheetah, a dik-dik, we have two porcupines, two klip springers, and we also have one Addra gazelle.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tyris Perreira visited with Rusti the orangutan earlier this month, whom she used to care for at Honolulu Zoo. Rusti spotted Perreira out of the crowd of visitors and promptly went to visit her at a window, making guttural noises that signify affection.
What's a dik-dik?
A: It's a miniature deer. Very tiny.
Q: What's a klip springer?
A: Same thing. They're a little larger -- 20 to 40 pounds larger. The dik-dik is probably under 20 pounds.
We also have Greater kudus, and then the rest in that section are birds: guinea fowl, comb ducks, ... .
We also have three hippos, two warthogs -- we used to have three -- and we have three water bucks.
Q: What are those?
A: They're the larger antelope type, kind of like the kudu.
Q: I was wondering what the kudu were.
A: Yeah, they're of that sort. (Laughter)
Q: How long have you been working for the zoo?
A: Almost 13 years.
Q: What kind of background did you have to have to do this?
A: Back then, you needed to have some experience working with exotic animals, although prior to that I volunteered and worked here as an intern during college during the summer.
Q: What are the easiest animals to work with?
A: I don't know if there is an easiest. What is easy? What do you mean by easy?
Q: Well, how about in terms of complicatedness?
A: I'd say the carnivores are the harder ones. If we have to do medical procedures, medication, it's a little more difficult to work with them -- the lions, the dogs and hyenas. So the easier ones I guess are the antelopes or giraffes, maybe.
Q: What about safety around the animals?
A: Yes, we always have to keep in mind to be safe. You don't touch them, like the carnivores especially, because you could lose fingers. There's also a two-man rule, so, like, if you have to go in with the giraffes, you take somebody in with you and something to protect you.
Q: Like what?
A: Like a rake or a push board, to keep them away, because the giraffes like to come up to you.
Q: Do you ever anthropomorphize the animals you work with? Some animal researchers are instructed not to name their subjects or they'll be prone to attributing to them human characteristics, as well as treat them like pets, perhaps.
A: We do. We have names for them. It depends. Some of the keepers like to have that bond with their animals. Some animals, they like to socialize with the keepers, and some they keep their distance. Some it's good to have a bond with them, because if you work with them, it's easier.
But names are good, because they can identify themselves, like the dogs and hyenas.
Q: What do you think about keeping animals captive in general?
A: I agree with some of it. As long as we have a purpose for them (the animals), so they're not just sitting around. If we can portray them as to why they're here, and give them our best care, then educating the public is our next concern, so they can understand why these animals need to be preserved. Those are the things I agree with that we're doing in the zoos.
Q: Do you have a favorite animal at the zoo?
A: My favorites are the elephants, of course, and Rusti (the orangutan). I have to keep my bonds with them.
Q: About Rusti, when did you stop taking care of him?
A: September. It was like a cold turkey thing, The next day it was like, "No, you're not there anymore." The elephants, too. It was really hard. If they didn't like me, it wouldn't matter, but that was not the case. So I go back to keep the bond. And if the keepers over there need help, I'll go back and help.
Q: What kind of animals do you have at home?
A: Oh, I have three boxers ... I have a lot of birds.
Q: Any fish?
A: We have fish. (Laughter) I also work part time at a vet clinic. That was actually my first job before I came here. My whole life I've been working around animals -- horses, 4-H and all that.
Q: Looking ahead, will you be at the zoo for years to come?
A: Yeah, I hope so. It's a lot about working with the keepers, getting their morale and keeping that up, and everyone working together. We're here primarily for the animals, and if we can get together as a group, it's much easier to work that way.
But making everybody happy isn't easy. That's a tough job. I think I had an easier time working with the elephants.