There is no typical workday for an animal-care intern at Roger Williams Park Zoo.
One minute you’re spraying perfume around the cheetah exhibit. The next, you’re carrying a sedated leopard in for his annual physical, says Joey Golden, a 24-year-old intern from Lincoln.
Dozens of students apply for the five coveted internship positions at the zoo each semester, said Diane S. Nahabedian, the director of marketing and public relations for the zoo.
The 32-hour-a-week, unpaid internship gives kids pursuing careers in animal science unique access to wild animals.
Golden, who studies animal science at the University of Rhode Island, enthusiastically shows up for his 8 a.m. shifts. That’s partly because he starts the day with Riley, a two-toed sloth that eagerly eats microwaved eggs out of his palm. But also because he is dedicated to becoming a zookeeper — like many trained at the Rhode Island park before him.
“You have to be committed to do this job,” he said. “It’s a lot of hours. And you pick up a lot of poop.”
The Roger Williams Park Zoo is one of 232 exhibitions accredited by the The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit focused on advancing conservation, education and science at zoos and aquariums across the country.
Less than 10 percent of the thousands of wildlife exhibitions in the United States have this coveted accreditation — making it an attractive summer learning destination for students in Rhode Island and beyond.
At about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Golden was turning over soil near a flock of flamingos in the Tropics area when he was called to the Vet Hospital. Here, an all-female team of veterinarians and assistants worked to sedate a red-rumped agouti named Nelson, who was undergoing his annual physical.
Weighing 7 pounds, Nelson looks something like a cross between a mouse and a squirrel.
And he was not going down without a fight. Despite the IsoFlo, an animal anesthetic, and oxygen being pumped into his carrier, Nelson bucked and scratched while a room of eight people whispered and tiptoed trying to trick the critter into sleeping.
When he seemed to quiet, Dr. Kim Wojcik lifted the tattered pink towel and plastic bag being used to fumigate the carrier off and reached in.
But Nelson was still awake. He squirmed and writhed on the table before settling into a deep sleep, aided by a steady stream of IsoFlo.
“We can’t get our hands on you otherwise,” said Wojick, talking to Nelson. “So we have to anesthetize you.”
Nelson’s exam turned up calluses on his foot pads. The women puzzled the observation over for a few minutes before deciding he was OK. Nelson was weighed, his blood was tested, and he was felt for bumps before being sent on his way.
Golden says the creatures remind him of children.
They don’t like shots. They have very little patience. And often need their mothers (or in this case, handlers) to answer questions about their medical history.
Vets on staff complete annual physicals for each of the hundreds of animals in the zoo. While Nelson was an easy lift — imagine carting a conked out alligator into the room. And one can only imagine the necessity for the nets hanging on the wall beside the operating table.
Each animal has a name, a medical file, a backstory (two of the flamingos are rumoured to be in love) and a zoo keeper who truly cares for him or her, says Nahabedian, the zoo spokeswoman.
“They treat these animals like their children,” Nahabedian said.
Golden is along for the ride. He says: “It’s a little crazy how casual everything becomes.”
In his first week, he was floored when asked to observe a root canal procedure on a cheetah.
But now? He calmly stands beside elephants — ready with a poop shovel, a snack and a smile.