...how keepers relate to animals?

An Ever Wonder? podcast from the California Science Center

Josh smiles while carefully but comfortably holding a desert tortoise, who is munching some leafy greens.
Courtesy of Josh Hestermann

Josh holds a tortoise from the Desert area of Ecosystems.

Folks often say that dogs are a human's best friend. The Science Center doesn't have any dogs on display (well at least not since our temporary Dogs! exhibit closed), but we sure do have lots of other terrestrial animals to take care of. And our keepers—the folks who do that work—really care about our animals. Do you ever wonder how keepers develop a relationship with the animals they take care of?

Josh Hestermann leads the team who takes care of everything that lives on land at the Science Center. He shares what it's like to gain the trust of a military macaw and what goes into taking care of all the terrestrial animals you might see when you visit.

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Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:06 

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Folks often say that dogs are a human's best friend. The Science Center doesn't have any dogs on display. Well, at least not since our temporary Dogs exhibit closed, but we sure do have lots of other terrestrial animals to take care of, and our keepers, the folks who do that work really care about our animals. Do you ever wonder how keepers develop a relationship with the animals they take care of? Josh Hesterman leads, the team who takes care of everything that lives on land at the Science Center. I have invited him to the show to learn more about what it's like to gain the trust of a military macaw and what goes into taking care of all the terrestrial animals you might see when you visit. So Josh, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.

Josh Hestermann: 00:54 

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:03 

So you are, uh, basically like in charge of taking care of all of our animals, our land animals. Is that right?

Josh Hestermann: 01:12

Yeah. So if you think about all the animals at the Science Center that are not in water, then that will fall under the terrestrial department.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:21 

Some folks might have seen things like, uh, our hashtag creature feature videos that you and your team have been doing on social media. Um, but for those listeners who might not know that much about animal care, what is it that you do? Like take me through a day in the life of a keeper.

Josh Hestermann: 01:37 

Uh, yeah, it starts pretty early. We get there probably around 6:00 a.m. Uh, we start our day with going over notes from the previous day, uh, things that were caught the day before, meaning like feed logs or behavior logs. So just how the animal was doing all that's captured and put in notes and we go over that in the morning and then we make our way down to our kitchen and one of our dry storage areas where we have food and just different supplies that we're going to need to start our day. Um, and each keeper will run through one of three routines cleaning up after animals and feeding animals and checking on how they're doing. And we have a lot of different exhibits throughout the whole Science Center. So it's such a wide range in such a diverse collection, um, that we want to make sure that we take our time to do right by them.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 02:30 

Right. Uh, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about things more from the exhibit side that, that our guests are experiencing. Like what kind of things do you have to negotiate when you have this really high, important standard for animal care, but you're also working across departments and we're trying to create a good guest experience. They want to see an animal and learn more about it through its behaviors. How do you negotiate kind of those tradeoffs between animal care and a good exhibit when sometimes they come in conflict?

Josh Hestermann: 03:02 

Yeah. And they definitely come in conflict, you know, keeper staff want the best for their animals. And sometimes that means like, Oh, well we need to provide them lots of different hides for them to hide under. Um, but that's not a great guest experience. So it can be challenging to, to balance that. But we like to look at it as opportunities for, for a good guest experience and, you know, excellent husbandry are excellent animal care.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:30 

They don't need to be mutually exclusive.

Josh Hestermann: 03:32 

Right. And, and a good example, a more recent example we've had is with our emperor scorpions, they were an animal that were never on exhibit. Uh, cause we've been trying to breed them and thought that the world of life discovery room would be a cool place to allow guests to see them on exhibit. We noticed that we put them in there. They loved burying under the substrate they were in.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:56 

And when you say substrate what does that mean? Unpack that.

Josh Hestermann: 03:59 

Oh yeah. It's a, so just what the animal lives in sand can be as substrate.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 04:03 

Okay. So like the thing at the bottom of where they're living.

Josh Hestermann: 04:05 


Perry Roth-Johnson: 04:05 

Kind of lining the enclosure.

Josh Hestermann: 04:08 

Right. So the emperor scorpions live in a coconut fiber substrate.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 04:13

But they like to bury in that.

Josh Hestermann: 04:14 

Yeah. Yeah. And that's exactly what they would do in the wild. They were like, Oh, we have more room to bury. Like this is great. So we were seeing some really cool behaviors from the scorpions. Our animal care level went up for them. Um, but guests weren't, they weren't able to see them. So, you know, they were now on exhibit. We were super excited to share emperor scorpions with guests and no one can see them. So we challenged ourselves to try to find ways to allow them to self-bury themselves and allow guests to still be able to see them. So we were putting like pre-made hides for them underground right at the front of the glass. So they dig very down guests will still be able to see them at the front of the, at the front of the glass. And then just offering different height opportunities, closer to the glass where they were still hiding. But you could still see them if you kind of peaked in at the right moment. And another plan we've talked about is installing a black light that guests can actually push, push with a button because scorpions' exoskeleton will actually glow in the dark under blacklight.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:16 

Wait really?

Josh Hestermann: 05:16 (05:16):

Yeah. Yeah. So,

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:17 

That's so weird.

Josh Hestermann: 05:19 

When I worked when worked in Arizona, we would actually go, at the Phoenix Zoo we would go out looking for scorpions to remove them from animal exhibits and, you know, move them elsewhere. Arizona scorpions are everywhere. So we would have these blacklight, you know, scorpion parties and we'd go out looking for scorpions and trying to move them from exhibits that they shouldn't, they shouldn't be in.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 05:41 

I'm just curious, like when you got into this work, did you have a favorite animal that kind of drew you in, uh, to this work of animal care?

Josh Hestermann: 05:50 

Uh, you know, growing up, I actually visited the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, um, and just remember loving animals. So I knew I wanted to work with animals and I wanted to work maybe in a zoo. I just, I liked the environment of, of that zoo. So I definitely focused my schooling and college education on like getting to that goal. Um, when I was in college, I graduated, I enrolled as a non degree graduate student and that was just so I can get my foot in the door with doing this research stuff out in the Sea of Cortez. And it was doing California sea lion research. So I went out there and fell in love with California sea lions. And that kind of became my favorite animal.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 06:36 

What is it about the California sea lion that you really fell in love with?

Josh Hestermann: 06:40 

Yeah. If, uh, if everyone can just imagine a golden retriever that is just super happy all the time and super friendly and loves to swim, that's how I would describe the playful nature of a California sea lion. Now, not the males that are like in, in territory mode breeding. Uh, they can definitely be aggressive, but, uh, you know, some of the juvenile playful sea lions are just like a dog, uh, and having worked with them, uh, and training them, uh, they are that way in taking care of them as well.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 07:14 

How do you, how do you train a sea lion?

Josh Hestermann: 07:16 

Uh, yeah, that's a great question. Uh, a lot of positive reinforcement, uh, and pretty much only positive reinforcement, but you have to go into it, making sure that you keep fun kind of at the forefront of your mind. Cause we want to make sure it's like a game for them, a game that they always win, but we obviously can't use whatever your native language is. You know, they don't understand words.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 07:39 


Josh Hestermann: 07:40 

So we have to come up with a different way to let them know that they're doing a good job. And that's basically, uh if anyone has a dog at home, they do something good, they get a treat. So, um, in the case of, you know, California sea lion, it would just be the fish that they're going to get and then just make it a game and you're, you're using that same process to just work through a lot of different behaviors. And I can go on and on about how we train to get them to move into a holding area, to weigh them or to get them to move into a crate. And then the other part of it is just a good relationship with them and other wild animals. So that's what makes it very different than working with your pet at home. We understand that they're wild animals and also why it's good to use positive reinforcement because it really builds a good solid foundation on trust, both ways and, um, a clear understanding of communication. And it's just more fun that way. And you definitely see the animals having fun when they're challenged, but you build a system where they always know they're going to win.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 08:47 

Yeah. I'm glad you said that at the end. Cause it really sounded like this is all about building trust in a relationship. I'm curious, I'm sure it's different for each animal, but typically, well, let's just start with the sea lion. Like how long typically did it take you to build trust with the sea lion that you were working with?

Josh Hestermann: 09:05 

Right and that depends on the animal for sure. You know, I've walked into, um, different departments where, you know, one animal is known as being more aggressive. Uh, and the other one is known as being more friendly. So the friendly one is usually much easier to gain and gain that trust.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:24 


Josh Hestermann: 09:24 

It's, it's not until you start putting them in situations where you're challenging them, where you really see how much trust you have with them. Probably, you know, takes four to six months to gain that initial trust.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:40 

Months? Wow.

Josh Hestermann: 9:40 


Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:40 

So it's a long-term kind of thing?

Josh Hestermann: 09:43

Right. And when you are thinking our military macaw at the Science Center, um, when I first started, I started training him and macaws are I would, I would say in some regard harder to train than like a sea lion because they typically pick a favorite—they're monogamous in the wild. And uh, if there's any listeners that knows people or has a macaw at home, uh, I'm sure they know what I'm talking about. Um, but they'll typically pick a favorite person in the family. Um, it can make it difficult for others to work with them. So definitely something we need to keep in mind with our military macaw. So when I first started with him, um, it took a few months just to allow me to feed him by hand. Um, I would actually just walk into the room, um, with him in his exhibit and just talk to him just slowly talk to him and I would drop food into his bowl. And that's that building the trust. Um, I'd say within four to five months, uh, had him out on, on my hand and was hand feeding him. Um, so once we're at that point, it's getting to work other behaviors that we need, that we need for healthcare. Now we can grab him up and shove him into a crate and put him on a scale to get his weight. But it's a lot easier if we train him to step onto our hand, to step onto a scale so we can get his weight every day and we weigh him every day and also to train him not to destroy the scale. Because another thing about macaws is they love to use their beaks and they love to destroy everything. So there's also a component of like heavy, heavy reinforcement and a lot of treats is coming your way when you don't try to bite things, I don't want to do to bites or destroy.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 11:26 

Sounds less traumatic for everyone involved.

Josh Hestermann: 11:28 

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 11:31

Josh, this is all, all great stuff. Any other stories that you'd like to share?

Josh Hestermann: 11:35 

I have lots, but I think, I think we shared some good ones for the Science Center and find out what it means to do animal care.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 11:41 

Yeah. Well, thanks for letting us peek behind the scenes a little bit about what you and your team are doing to take care of the animals, but still create cool experiences for our guests when, when they can come to the Science Center. Thanks for coming on the show.

Josh Hestermann: 11:54 

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 11:56 

That's our show. Thanks for listening until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nikolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review or tell a friend about it. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning and everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.