Zoo tracks and treats uninvited critters to help its animals stay disease free

Source: The Blade

By: Matt Markey

One of the Toledo Zoo’s most frequent visitors is not a zoo member, never pays an admission fee, and always avoids coming through the main gate.

“Uno” the raccoon prefers to slip under the fence, around a barrier, or use some subterranean passageway to make the zoo property part of his domain.

But thanks to an innovative program that is part of the zoo’s “Wild Toledo” initiative, this four-legged trespasser does not bring with him the potential of disease, which could present a serious threat to the roughly 6,000 animals representing more than 500 species that make the zoo their official home.

“After having worked in zoos for a long time, I’m aware that raccoons, opossums, skunks — they are on these grounds,” said zoo executive director Jeff Sailer. “They can prey on your animals occasionally, if they get into an enclosure, but probably an even bigger concern is the diseases that they can carry, because then they contaminate the ground and everything else.”

So Uno and other nocturnal gate-crashers from the zoo neighborhood have been captured in box traps, put through a health assessment and work-up by the zoo veterinary staff that included implanting an identifying microchip, being dewormed and vaccinated, and surgically sterilized. Then they are released.

That has been the standard procedure for the more than two dozen small native predatory mammals, known as mesopredators, that the zoo has captured, treated, and freed. A two-year, $24,000 grant the zoo received from the Kenneth Scott Charitable Trust pays for the program.

The concept came from a similar project that Mr. Sailer was involved in before coming to Toledo, while he was serving as the director of city zoos with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City.

“While I was there, we had the first cases of rabies in Central Park, inside the park facility, so we worked with the health department and did a trap-vaccinate-and-release program with the raccoons there, to stem the spread of rabies,” Mr. Sailer said. “That got us thinking about managing the wildlife around here in that manner.”

The local zoo started this program a little more than a year ago in an effort to establish a stable, healthy and nonreproductive population of raccoons, opossums, and skunks, whose numbers can go unchecked because of the lack of larger predators in their customary habitat.

“We wanted to try and maintain the animals that were living here in as healthy a state as possible,” Mr. Sailer said, referring to the new approach to dealing with the mesopredators that visit zoo grounds.

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