For more than 50 years, The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens has cared for a growing animal population that now includes nearly 500 critters from desert climates, including cheetah, giraffes, zebras, African wild dogs, and wallabies, who are the stars of the new Australian Adventures pavilion that opened in March 2020.
While the animals’ well-being may seem effortless to visitors, The Living Desert animal care director Roxanna Breitigan notes that keeping the various species happy is a full-time challenge for her team and the two veterinarians on staff. Breitigan, who has been with the zoo for over five years, shares what surprises visitors about the lives of the animals who call the Palm Desert institution home.
Animals can take the heat.
“The No. 1 question we are asked is, ‘How can the animals handle the heat?’ The answer is easy,” Breitigan explains. “They’re built for it. I’m more worried about the humans. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Chad in Africa and see oryx out there in the 100-plus heat. I’ve seen it for myself. They dig it.”
Socializing is vital.
When the zoo shut down to the general public for three months because of COVID-19 restrictions, Breitigan was surprised to see if didn’t have much affect on the animals. “For the most part, it was kinda like, ‘Oh, you’re back,’” she says. Breitigan was particularly interested to see the reactions of a new litter of 11 African dogs born in January. “They had just started to come out,” Breitigan says. “We knew that when we opened the gates, those puppies had never seen a ton of people.”
Positive enforcement goes a long way.
You know how your dog won’t roll over unless you give him a treat? Zebras are the same way. “It’s a big commitment from the animal keepers to do the same thing every day in order to make sure the animals are comfortable and not stressed when the vet needs to come over to visit,” Breitigan says. “For example, one of our zebras needed vaccines. The keeper trained him to come put his shoulder to the fence and receive an injection instead of [us] having to use a dart gun, which can be very stressful.”
Animals don’t live forever.
The Living Desert employs a pair of full-time veterinarians responsible for the health of the almost 500 animals that live there. “For whatever reason, many people think animals live forever and never age,” Breitigan says. “They get arthritis, cancer, wounds — ailments just like we do.”
For more information, visit livingdesert.org.