Guten Tag, Berlin!

By Sandy Masuo

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Art Gonzales and Tierpark Berlin Reptile Keeper Nico Astor at Zoo Berlin

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Art Gonzales and Tierpark Berlin Reptile Keeper Nico Astor at Zoo Berlin

Conservation is a cause that can bridge cultural divides and transcend language barriers. People who work in zoos around the world are united in their commitment to the animals in their care and concern for the world we share. Because conservation challenges, such as climate change and the illegal trade in wildlife products, are global in nature, the mission to nurture wildlife and enrich the human experience is increasingly one that involves reaching out to colleagues in other countries.

Nico and Christian in front of the L.A. Zoo - Summer 2015

Nico and Christian in front of the L.A. Zoo during a May 2015 Exchange stay

Sister Cities International was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to encourage long-term partnerships between communities—including municipal, professional, educational, and cultural exchanges. On June 27, 1967, Berlin and Los Angeles became sister cities, and 47 years later to the day, Los Angeles and Berlin Zoos signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to promote professional collaboration and development. This agreement manifested last year in the Zoo Berlin-Tierpark Berlin-Los Angeles Zoo Keeper Exchange. Organized by Curator of Mammals Jeff Holland with his counterpart at Zoo Berlin, Christian Kern, the exchange was underwritten by former L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge.

In May, Reptile Keeper Nico Astor from Tierpark Berlin and Ape Keeper Christian Aust from Zoo Berlin spent two weeks in Los Angeles. In addition to working with L.A. Zoo staff, they visited the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park and enjoyed a bevy of social events—including Bowling For Rhinos. Among the ideas they took back to Berlin with them and implemented were free park maps (previously, only small booklets for purchase were available) and bamboo plantings (to provide fresh browse year round).

After an application process, two L.A. Zoo keepers were selected to travel to Berlin: Kris Willis from the Aquatics section and Art Gonzales, who cares for hoofstock. During their stay in Germany from August 29 through September 13, Willis and Gonzales each spent time working with their Berlin counterparts caring for pinnipeds and hoofstock, but they also had opportunities to work with other animals including macropods and primates.

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Art Gonzales with a pygmy hippo at Zoo Berlin

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Art Gonzales with a pygmy hippo at Zoo Berlin

“One of the items on my bucket list was to work with pygmy hippos—and I did at the Berlin Zoo!” comments Gonzales, who has worked at the L.A. Zoo for 19 years. “That, plus all the time I spent working with hoofstock different from those in our collection—especially cape buffalo, musk oxen, and blue sheep—is something that I will never forget.”

Other highlights for Willis and Gonzales included learning how different facilities care for the same species they oversee in L.A. and developing new ideas for husbandry, training, and enrichment.

Willis has worked with seals and sea lions for 14 years and was able to share training ideas for some husbandry behaviors as well as health care strategies such as using saline eye drops to help combat some of the eye problems common in pinnipeds. She was also able to offer pointers on holding and feeding an orphaned sea lion pup. “In return, I brought home ideas to try out here,” she explains, “including new tool methods for cleaning pools. I learned different ways of restraining animals during veterinary exams and want to try using more fresh grass for browse. I also learned about whole and new foods as enrichment for macropods—kangaroos love red beets!”

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Kris Willis bottle feeding Monty the orphaned agile wallaby at Zoo Berlin

L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Kris Willis bottle feeding Monty the orphaned agile wallaby at Zoo Berlin

Zoos are always reflections of the communities around them, and Berlin staff were enthusiastic about sharing their city and its history and culture. Willis and Gonzales met with Berlin Zoo and Tierpark Director Andreas Knieriem for an appearance on the zoo’s television channel and took part in many social events, tours, and shopping expeditions.

For Willis, who chose German as her foreign language requirement in 7th grade and studied it throughout high school, the exchange merged her current calling with a path not chosen. “My plan was to major in German and work for the CIA in Germany (I have an uncle who did that in Japan),” she explains. “However, when I enrolled in community college, I found they didn’t offer anything beyond German 2. I ended up getting sidetracked by science and eventually zoo keeping. It’s funny how I’ve come around full circle. My interest in gathering foreign intelligence about national security has evolved into gathering foreign intelligence to develop even better ways to care for the animals in our collection.”

L.A. Zoo Animal Keepers meet a zoo TV director at Zoo Berlin giraffe yard

Art and Kris meet the director in the Zoo Berlin giraffe yard for a TV appearance (the zoos have their own channel)