Whether you've always dreamed of being a zookeeper or just want to get up close to your favorite animal, Brookfield Zoo gives visitors the chance to go behind the scenes through their Wild Encounters programs.
"We're trying to give people who are interested in a zoo career the chance to come in and really see what it's like to work at the zoo and work with the animals," said Andre Copeland, interpretive programs manager.
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Wild EncountersWhere: Brookfield Zoo, 3300 Golf Road, Brookfield, (708) 688-8000, czs.org
Price: Sessions run $150 to $400
Brookfield has been running Wild Encounters programs since 2002, offering between 12 and 14 different programs each year. Participants must be at least age 12 and those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult chaperon who attends at no cost. Sessions cost between $250 to $400.
The most popular sessions are "Poolside With Penguins" and "Flippered Friends." Both are offered more than 100 times a year, and almost all of the dates get booked, Copeland said. In the 90-minute penguin program, guests learn how to prepare food for penguins and observes the birds and feeds them.
With the "Flippered Friend" encounter, participants get a behind-the-scenes tour of Seven Seas and Pinniped Point and get up close with dolphins, sea lions and seals as they join in on care sessions and help trainers plan a dolphin show.
Wild Encounters fits in with Brookfield's mission of connecting people with wildlife and nature, along with providing a venue for talking about conservation.
"When people are able to get close to these animals and really understand their lifestyle, they're more sensitive about the things they're doing that may affect these animals," Copeland said.
For 2011, the zoo added "Bison Wild Encounters" in their new Great Bear Wilderness exhibit. During the 90-minute session, visitors work with keepers to get the animals ready for the day and learn about their diet, habitat and training.
"We take a look at the areas around the zoo, and we work closely with our team," Copeland said. "If there are areas that we think are appropriate, we try to pilot a new encounter each year. We're always trying to provide variety."
For 2012, Copeland said the zoo is working on revamping their "Helping With the Heavyweights" program, transforming it into "Rhino Rembrandt." In addition to learning about caring for the animals, visitors will work with the keepers and rhinos to produce a work of art they can take home.
"Rhinos actually do have somewhat prehensile limbs, especially the black rhino, to aid them when they're feeding on grasses," Copeland said. "We may have the rhinos work with the trainers to hold the brush or we may have them do something with their feet, like finger painting."
Rhinos, like all the zoo's animals, are taught new tricks with positive reinforcement. When the animals engage with trainers, they're rewarded with something they like. If they don't want to do the activity, trainers look for something else to do with the animal.
"Any time you provide something new for the animals, it's enriching their lives," Copeland said. "The new behaviors that the animals learn keep them stimulated."
While zoo staff members are always offering visitors information about species, Wild Encounters provides even more details. During the "Swamp Things" encounter, the keeper talks about his relationship with two American alligators he's been caring for since the exhibit opened in 1996.
"These are stories that no one else could share," Copeland said. "Working side by side with the trainers they can hear individual stories about the animals that trainers care for on a day-to-day basis."