Wrestling a crocodile is nothing out of the ordinary for Busch Gardens zookeeper Cara Kruse ’01 of Tampa, Fla., although it’s nothing like herding cattle.
“I grew up on a farm working with cattle, corn and soybeans,” she says. “I never thought I’d be wrestling crocodiles, training hyenas or researching hippos, but that’s what I look forward to every day.”
According to Kruse, the crocodiles at Busch Gardens can be up to 15 feet long and weigh almost 1,000 pounds. Rounding up one of these feisty reptiles for medical reasons or habitat changes takes at least a few zookeepers and starts with wrestling the croc to attach neck and snout ropes. Once the ropes are secure, at least four zookeepers must jump on the crocodile, with the “head” person grabbing its jaws and holding them close. Kruse has been that head person before and, not surprisingly, calls it the scariest and most tense position. It takes tremendous effort to maintain the pressure and weight needed to keep the crocodile from spinning, death rolling or causing injuries.
Croc wrestling is just one example of how there’s never been a dull moment for Kruse since she began working for Busch Gardens the summer after graduating from Millikin. She started at the park as a resident zoo camp counselor, shadowing zookeepers and teaching teenagers about the biology and conservation of managed exotic animals each summer while studying for her master’s degree from the University of Missouri - Columbia.
After completing a degree in parks, recreation and tourism and a certificate in conservation biology, Kruse stayed on full time at Busch Gardens and was promoted to zookeeper in 2003. Three years later, she was named senior animal care specialist, and last December, she was promoted to senior I animal care specialist.
“Senior I is the highest zookeeper status before moving on to a desk job, but I don’t really want a desk job yet. I’m having too much fun doing what I do,” she says.
The fun even includes cleaning the hippo tanks, considered to be among the zoo’s dirtiest jobs because hippos digest only about 60 percent of what they eat. In other words, what goes in as hay comes back out looking very similar to hay. Plus, female hippos tend to defecate in the water, making their tanks especially dirty. Zoo staff must dive twice a week to vacuum…well, you know, and clean the windows. On the upside, the tanks are also home to a hundred thousand colorful African cichlid fish, so Kruse says, “Even though you’re doing a dirty job, you feel like you’re in an African lake doing it.”
However, her job doesn’t consist of only dirty work. On a daily basis, Kruse interacts with the animals: feeding, nurturing and training them. For example, she recalls one morning when she and zoo staff went into their hippo and lemur habitat to feed the animals and found them acting strange. “Five of our ring-tailed lemurs were dancing around, standing on their hind legs, swaying and vocalizing near the edge of the hippo lake, and one of our female hippos, Moxie, was standing near the keeper entrance door … all a little strange for animals that like to sleep-in in the morning,” she says. As it turned out, Moxie was hiding a new baby hippo born earlier than expected. Hippos normally give birth in the water, but Moxie had given birth on land to a healthy, 50-pound “baby” girl.
Among all her duties, Kruse says that training the animals is the one most full of surprises. “It always amazes me just how quickly animals learn, especially animals that you don’t think would be trainable,” she says, naming their Nile crocodile, Sobek, as an example. Since he’s one of the largest in the park, it’s impossible for the staff to catch him if they must move him due to injuries or habitat renovations. So, they trained him to move in and out of a crate made specifically for his size, creating less stress for both the reptile and the zookeepers.
In addition to her work with animals, Kruse also helps interview, train and mentor new staff members and has developed an animal research class for zoo staff. She also teaches teenage campers, focusing on opportunities to complete research abroad with the EarthWatch Program, a program giving people of all ages and backgrounds a chance to study alongside field researchers throughout the world.
Last fall, Kruse went on a three-week trip to Africa with EarthWatch in a partnership effort between the program and the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. She conducted her research at a small camp in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa with other researchers as a part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, an ongoing research project focused on six groups of habituated meerkats that happen to be among those shown on the popular Animal Planet TV show, “Meerkat Manor.”
Kruse sometimes wonders how she got to this point, because she didn’t always want to do the work she does. “When I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up and be like Indiana Jones: teaching and traveling all over the world,” she says. “But, I think I made it pretty close. I get to teach people about conservation, and I get to travel all over the world. I haven’t learned how to use a whip or anything, but that wasn’t really on the list.”
At Millikin, Kruse stayed undecided for two years before majoring in biology, and she says she wouldn’t trade her Big Blue experience for anything. She challenges current students: “Don’t be afraid to reach outside of your comfort zone. Have a little faith in yourself and take every opportunity that comes your way … life keeps educating you long after Millikin, so don’t let yourself stop learning. Reach out for more.”
by Kate Eagler ’11
The complete article appeared in fall 2009 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.