Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keeper Spotlight – Otter Edition: Courtney Lewis and Jennifer Wawra

Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

River Otter Falls officially opens inside the Tennessee Aquarium’s Cove Forest on May 2nd. With just two weeks until the grand opening, this month’s special Keeper Spotlight “otter” be a good one! Our two otter keepers, Courtney Lewis and Jennifer Wawra, have learned to move quickly. It’s a big job caring for seven high-energy otters, but Courtney and Jennifer were able to take a little time to answer some questions about what it’s like keeping up with these feisty fur balls.

What is your favorite thing about working with river otters?

CL: Training, especially in that moment when I see the information “click” and know that the otter truly understands the new behavior.

(Courtney Lewis leading training in the backup area of the original exhibit)
JW: I absolutely love to go in to the backup area in the morning and wake them up and bring in breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal and they sure get excited when a keeper first walks into backup each morning! Training the otters is another large part of my day and one of the best parts of my job here at the Aquarium.

What are some of the things you are training the otters to do?

CL: We’re teaching them behaviors that will help us care for them in their habitat. A lot of it has to do with rewarding them for doing things like standing in the same spot – which allows us to examine or weigh them, or running out onto the exhibit which helps us rotate the groups that explore their habitat throughout the day. The training is all done by practice and positive reinforcement.

JW: Specifically, we’re working on stationing, shifting, targeting, teeth/paw presentation, scale training, standing (for visual confirmation that the animal is healthy), and holding (staying still in a particular spot for a second). 

(Jennifer Wawra and Delmar take a quick photo during training inside the original exhibit)

As an otter keeper, what are you most looking forward to about the new exhibit?

JW: River Otter Falls is a dynamic new exhibit which appeals to our otters in many ways.There are a total of five waterfalls, three different pools, three digging areas, a den and a slide. There is also a ton of land area to run, logs to shimmy across, stumps and rocks to climb to keep our otters actively engaged in their environment. You name it, we’ve got it. We have put so much thought into designing our otters’ new home. We paid close attention to every detail to provide an enriching environment for our otters. They can play in the water, dig in sand or mulch, climb up and down the rocks….this new home allows a lot of choices of how they want to spend their day. I cannot wait to see guests watching our otters enjoy their new home.

What do you think visitors will enjoy most about River Otter Falls?

CL: River Otter Falls is very dynamic for two reasons: its size and how we will present various combinations of otters at one time. I think guests will have fun seeing that. Some of the most fun I’ve had so far has been seeing how the different groups of otters interact with one another once they’re in the exhibit. 

Do you work with any other Aquarium animals?

CL: I started caring for animals at the Aquarium first as a herpetology volunteer while I was working as a gallery associate. Now, alongside otters, I take care of reptiles and amphibians in the Cove Forest, Discovery Hall, and half of the Rivers of the World gallery. I also occasionally get to do Ranger Rick programs with tarantulas, which I love!

JW: I work with a lot of the snakes here at the Aquarium, most of which are housed in keeper areas. I also work with a variety of our turtles. I am currently working on training our large female alligator in Delta Country, as well as caring for the smaller gator and all three alligator snapping turtles. I also help out at Penguins’ Rock every now and then. Occasionally I get to work in the Ranger Rick Gallery providing guests with up close and personal one-on-one animal encounters. I feel blessed beyond words to work with such incredible animals and an unbelievably educated staff. 

Got a question for Courtney and/or Jennifer? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with  hashtag #QTheKeeper. 

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