New faces bring familiar dedication to carnivore department
So far, so great.
In September 2016, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center’s carnivore department welcomed two new staff members. After 12 months on the job, Cheetah Specialist Alex Sharkey and Carnivore Specialist Tessa Townsend have Carnivore Curator Jason Ahistus feeling thankful for the decision to bring them aboard that he made with then-Carnivore Curator Mary Jo Stearns.
“Having Tessa and Sharkey work out well in our department was vital to Fossil Rim’s success,” Ahistus said. “We need consistent and dedicated staff that are willing to put in the time to learn these species and the behaviors of the individual animals. That is always a priority in animal care. Also, having them learn and do well has helped make my transition to curator much easier.”
It is evident when talking to both women how invested they are in the animals they care for.
“I absolutely love how involved they have become,” Ahistus said. “They are both so passionate about what they do and about the animals. I know that they are both going to do what it takes to get the job done and they never hesitate to call for advice. They are always willing to come in early and stay late as needed or come in on their off-days to help out in any way.
“That dedication gives me reassurance when I am not here, because I know the animals are in good, caring hands. I am so happy to have these two as my staff, and I look forward to seeing them grow and evolve here at Fossil Rim. I’m excited for what the future holds in our carnivore world and to see what the three of us can accomplish together.”
Preferring to go by “Sharkey” instead of her first name, the cheetah specialist was born in New Jersey and spent the latter part of her childhood in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I was a kid who brought animals home and asked mom if I could keep them,” she said. “I grew up going to zoos often. At age seven, I visited an aquarium and this scuba diver decided he wanted to play patty cake with me.
“That moment changed my life. I became really interested in exotic animals and helping them.”
She attended Santa Fe College in Florida and switched from a pre-vet route to the Zoo Animal Technology Program for two years.
“There, I learned basic husbandry skills and was able to work with a variety of species to gain some experience,” Sharkey said. “Other students were going to math class while I was going to an animal class.”
Prior to her current Texas adventures, Sharkey was working at White Oak Conservation in Florida as a carnivore specialist.
“I was at a point where I was ready to gain experience at another facility and learn different ways of how things are done,” she said. “Plus, I’d lived in Florida for 15 years and was ready for a personal change, too.”
She feels her tenure at White Oak was a huge benefit to her current success at Fossil Rim.
“I definitely gained a lot of my cheetah husbandry skills from White Oak,” Sharkey said. “Karen Meeks, the carnivore curator there, gave me a chance by hiring me after my internship, which I am super grateful for. I gained some other experience with the Florida panther rehab and worked with maned wolves and tigers, in addition to cheetahs, of course.”
Sharkey discovered the Fossil Rim position on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums website.
“I knew that Molly (Shea), our giraffe specialist who I’d gone to college with, worked at Fossil Rim,” she said. “I asked her some questions about it.”
The interview went well, and she got the job.
“I was nervous, but also excited for the potential of this next adventure,” she said. “The scary thing for me about taking the job was leaving my family in Florida, because I’d never been more than two hours away from them before and now I’d be 16 hours away, plus I didn’t know anyone but Molly. I wasn’t sure about moving to Texas, but I took the chance and here I am now.”
Sharkey began her Fossil Rim career on Sept. 26, 2016.
“Everything has exceeded my expectations,” she said nearly a year later. “Jason and Tessa have been great team members. Jason is a great boss. He is really willing to teach and let us grow.”
During most weeks, their schedules are in a set rotation so that the three of them all work together only on Wednesdays.
“But if I have any projects to get done on the weekend, Tessa (who also works weekends) is always willing to help me (and vice versa) so things are getting done in a timely fashion,” Sharkey said.
She values having the trust of Ahistus with the park’s approximately 30 cheetahs.
“I appreciate that Jason is laid-back, so then I don’t stress out and I can think straight,” she said. “He explains everything because he wants us to learn as much as possible so he can rely on us to do the job better. Because he expects the best, it makes me strive to be a better staff member.”
She mentioned some other people who provide support and guidance.
“When I was starting out, Mary Jo helped me on the days Jason wasn’t there and answered any questions,” Sharkey said. “(COO) Kelley (Snodgrass) will do the same when Jason isn’t available. If I’m stressing out over something medical with an animal, (Dr.) Julie (Swenson) calms me down and explains everything so well, as does (Dr.) Holly (Haefele). Being able to ask them what an animal is dealing with is great, as is how the animal care and animal health (departments) work together in general.”
As a former intern at White Oak, things have come full-circle in that regard.
“I work with our (carnivore) intern one day per week, and I try to always give them pointers and compliment a job well done or help them correct mistakes,” Sharkey said. “It’s like being a teacher; and you want these future specialists to have a positive experience and make the most of their opportunity. Even if they come here focused on one species, we encourage them to experience working with some of our other animals.”
Sharkey sure does love the world’s fastest land animals.
“Cheetahs obviously have a very special place in my heart,” she said. “I don’t think I’d deal with how difficult they are to care for if they weren’t so important to me. Cheetah is a good species for me because they keep me on my toes and each day is different.
“We usually try to have 3-4 litters per year. The best part of the job is to see the mother raise her cubs. Plus, they are the fastest land animal and beautiful creatures.”
Although Townsend is the primary caretaker for all the other carnivores, Sharkey plays her part with all of them, as well.
“I always thought maned wolves were very interesting, unique and smelly when I gained experience working with them at White Oak,” she said. “All the other carnivore species were new for me, and I’m excited to be a part of the wolf programs we have here. The black-footed cats are the smallest cats I’ve ever worked with and the meanest. ‘Mork’ (the brown-nosed coati) is just a cute, smelly old man who is also special to me because of his personality.”
Sharkey recalled some standout experiences from her first year.
“I bred a pair of cheetahs by myself, and that was a big deal,” she said. “It was an inexperienced male with an experienced female. It showed that Jason trusts me and believed I knew what I was doing. It gave me a confidence boost, which was pretty cool.
“Jason started training me on pole syringing for potential immobilizing drugs and immunizations, which is exciting because I’d never done anything like that. Being able to be part of the cross-foster for the cheetah ‘Charro’ and the cub ‘Lima’ – and then to see it be successful – was really exciting, too.
It sounds like Sharkey sees a promising future at Fossil Rim – a place she really enjoys.
“I have a long-term goal at Fossil Rim; I see my future being here,” she said. “When I came to Fossil Rim, everyone took me in quickly like I was one of them. We do so much for so many species. When I arrived for my working interview and Jason showed me all the giraffes roaming in the huge pasture, I just knew this was the right place for me.”
Ahistus concurs she has found a home at Fossil Rim.
“Sharkey was the perfect fit for what we needed,” he said. “As I transitioned to my new position, I needed someone who had experience working with cheetahs to come in and hit the ground running from the start. With her previous cheetah experience at White Oak, she was the most-qualified candidate for the position. She proved to be a quick learner and took direction well, which made training her very easy.”
Part of being a curator is more time spent in the office.
“I trust Sharkey’s judgement with the cheetahs,” Ahistus said. “She has learned a great deal in the year she has been here. It takes a long time to have a great understanding of cheetah behavior, but Sharkey has stepped up to the challenge and I feel she learns more each day.
“Overall, we communicate very well and, after seeing her react in certain situations, I know she will make the right decision or ask me for advice if she is ever unsure. It is hard for me to give up a lot of responsibility in something I care so much about, but Sharkey has shown me I can trust her and give her those extra responsibilities.”
He shared some of her strengths on the job.
“Responsible, hard-working, passionate and shows a willingness to constantly learn more; she is a critical thinker,” he said. “She analyzes multiple angles in each situation before she does something. With cheetah husbandry, things are constantly changing. So, to be prepared for anything and looking at all the possible scenarios is the best method.”
Ahistus recalled a particular day that Sharkey mentioned as one of her memorable moments thus far.
“She is very observant and quick to pick up on subtle changes in behavior and health of the animals,” he said. “I was very proud when I let Sharkey do her first cheetah breeding introduction without me. I was not on property, but she had me on the phone. She was so nervous.
“Honestly, I can’t believe I let her do that on her own so soon, but I trust her judgement and we talked about what could happen so she was prepared in the event it went badly. She was so excited to tell me the good news that the cheetahs bred. I remember when I first had that same opportunity, so I know how special it was for her.”
Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, Townsend moved to Ohio at age eight. She went on to major in zoology at Ohio State.
“When I was little, I was always the caretaker for all the cats and dogs that we had,” she said. “One day, one of our cats was about to have kittens. She came to get me, and then made sure I stayed with her while she was having kittens. It was really weird, but also an awesome moment where I realized taking care of animals is what I want to do.”
Townsend’s path to a position in Fossil Rim’s carnivore department was a bit different. On the same website Sharkey had searched, she saw an opening for a Children’s Animal Center (CAC) intern at Fossil Rim. Townsend began that experience in January 2016.
“I was an intern, but then when (then-CAC Supervisor) Amber (Smith) went on maternity leave I took over as CAC supervisor for a few months,” she said. “On my last day as supervisor, I got a call from Jason and he asked if I’d like to be the next carnivore intern. I was super excited to have that chance, which was unexpected and a dream opportunity.”
It would not be long before Townsend got a chance to prove herself.
“After I’d had four days of training, Jason went on vacation for 10 days,” she said. “I was taking care of all the carnivores. I’m sure Mary Jo was checking up on everything, but I think being able to do all that myself during that time so early on – it had them thinking that me being on staff could work. A month later, they told me I was under consideration for the carnivore specialist position.”
Without a formal interview, Townsend joined the staff on Sept. 19, 2016.
Fossil Rim grew on her during those intern months so that Townsend was ready to commit as a staff member.
“I didn’t like Texas when I first moved here, but as I got to know more employees and spend more time at Fossil Rim, I grew to really love it,” she said. “Everyone was so accepting, and to see ostriches and wildebeests outside your (intern house) window was amazing.”
Her primary animals to care for include two Mexican gray wolves, two red wolves, four maned wolves, two black-footed cats and a brown-nosed coati.
“I didn’t expect to learn as much as I have during this first year,” she said. “There is so much involved in this position, but Jason and Sharkey have explained it all along the way from their experience.”
Teamwork is the name of the game.
“It takes a lot of trust from all of us that everything will get done,” she said. “Communication is big – what has to be done, what we didn’t get to and then one of us can take care of anything that is left. We make it work; it’s been awesome.
“We get big projects done on Wednesdays when we are all together. Also, on the weekends we can get a lot done.”
Townsend mentioned some other people on staff that have been key to her progression.
“Amber was the one who got me started in the animal care field and taught me a lot at the CAC,” she said. “During that time, I realized I wanted to be in the animal care field for sure. Seeing Mary Jo take care of cubs and other baby animals is inspiring. I hope to grow and be like her, so it was encouraging to feel like she approved of Sharkey and me.
“Just being around Kelley is a learning experience, for an animal procedure, (an immobilization) or anything else. He is always super calm, cool and collected.”
As the rare person with multiple internships at Fossil Rim under her belt, Townsend talked about mentoring interns now. Each carnivore intern primarily works with her.
“Time management is a big one, because getting everything done in a day is essential,” she said. “I give them tidbits like a particular order of activities so they can get it all done in a timely manner. Also, I make sure they know what behavior to expect from each animal, plus what little signs they can look for.”
She appreciates Ahistus always making sure they are on the same page.
“He is really good at thinking 10 steps ahead, so with everything he considers how it might affect something else,” she said. “I’m learning to think that way, too. Jason is always really good at communicating. That was something I needed to work on, and I think I continue to get better.
“Sharkey came here with experience, unlike me. Jason has taught me so much about animal care.”
When asked about favorite animals, Townsend had particular individuals in mind.
“My favorite animal here changes all the time, but the most consistent is the maned wolf ‘Fiona,’” she said. “I smile a lot when I’m around her. Mork (the coati) is always a favorite, too. He makes me happy every day.”
With a variety of species to care for daily, Townsend talked a bit about each one.
“The Mexican gray wolves are really cool,” she said. “I got to see them breed this year, which we’d been hoping for. I spent a lot of hours observing them.
“Red wolves are a very interesting species, but the most I interact with them is seeing them run from house to house. We will focus more on breeding them in the coming year, which is awesome.
“Maned wolves are a really difficult animal to take care of due to their digestive problems as a species in general, but we are constantly trying to come up with ways to improve their body condition.
“Black-footed cats are unpredictable, but we have a lovely pair. Once I feed them, they calm down a little, but before that they are so aggressive. The animal I was most scared of when I started here was the male ‘Morgan.’
“And Mork was a pet before he came to Fossil Rim, so interactions with him are different than the other animals.”
When the schedule calls for it, Townsend is trained to care for the cheetahs, too.
“Cheetahs are a fascinating species,” she said. “They keep you on your toes, so you have to think quickly. You never know what to expect with them, and they are much more ‘in your face’ than our wolves. With that being said, you have to keep your guard up with all the animals in our department.”
She pointed out some of her most memorable experiences from year one.
“Definitely watching the Mexican gray wolves breed from the blind that we built, plus the electroejaculation procedures for Morgan and the red wolf ‘Pip,’” Townsend said. “Also, I’d include watching Jason and Sharkey handle the cheetahs when it is time to select a mate. They are so on the ball about reading behavior.”
Townsend also sees a future at Fossil Rim and knows stability is essential for these animals.
“Animals can get stressed out, especially the animals we work with, so for them to see the same few people is important,” she said. “Sharkey and I are very committed to our positions. It’s been really great that I’m in this position and that I’ve formed relationships with these animals that I take care of. I really like Jason and Sharkey, so continuing to work with them will be awesome.”
Townsend became sold on Fossil Rim after she arrived, and she is confident it will earn the appreciation of many others.
“I went to a lot of zoos growing up, seeing animals in confined spaces,” she said. “When I came to Fossil Rim and saw the animals having more space to show true behaviors, it was great. I think it is valuable for all people to see it.”
Something made Ahistus give Townsend a call with the internship offer the day before she left.
“Tessa had experience at Fossil Rim before we hired her to be a full-time animal care specialist,” he said. “She was an intern and stepped in as a temporary staff member to supervise the CAC when we were short-staffed for the majority of the summer. That proved she was capable of handling responsibility.
“We hired her for our carnivore internship and after a few weeks of working with her, I knew I wanted to hire her full-time. She was a natural fit for what we needed in that position and has proven to be just that.”
It is true cheetahs are Fossil Rim’s flagship carnivore species and one of the facility’s most successful programs, but Ahistus cares very much about the other species under his departmental umbrella.
“The cheetahs require a certain level of expertise to be successful, so they do require most of my time,” he said. “Having a trustworthy employee working with the other carnivores is very important. Her passion for the animals, outstanding work ethic and great attitude are her strengths. She has learned a lot about those species and still has a lot to learn, but the programs are evolving and growing with her.
“Being involved in breeding three species of wolves, as well as caring for black-footed cats and a coati requires a lot of commitment, and she is dedicated. Tessa pays close attention to all of her animals and trains interns while also devoting certain months of the year to the breeding season of each species of wolf. The time she puts into observing wolf behavior during breeding season is vital to our success at Fossil Rim.”
On that note, observation was the theme to his proudest moment of Townsend thus far.
“After putting in numerous hours, Tessa was able to observe our Mexican wolves breed,” he said. “She was so excited when it happened. I was happy that her dedication paid off. She spent countless hours during early mornings and late evenings – going above and beyond what was expected of her.
“She knew how important it was for us to determine a breeding date. Tessa has also proven to be very trustworthy with our hand-reared cheetah cubs. We had to pull a litter of cubs due to health issues and she was always willing to step up and assist in any way possible.”
From cheetahs to wolves, these two women make their animals the priority and Fossil Rim is all the better for it.
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate