In November 2003 Carol and I were exploring one of the little side trails that surround the Tree of Life on Discovery Island when we spotted a cast member tossing fish to one of the saddle-billed storks. Every time the stork stepped onto a small square of plywood on the ground inside the fence he was rewarded with a tasty herring.
As we watched, the keeper explained that this was a technique that made the stork comfortable with the plywood. Once a month, when it’s time to weigh the bird, they just place a scale under the board and stand by with some herring! Easy for the keeper and non-threatening for the stork!
Just a few days later we went on a Backstage Safari Tour. Our vehicle stopped briefly beside one of the elephant barns; as we watched an elephant play in the big outdoor enclosure beside the barn one of our guides explained how the animal experts use a similar reward and inducement process to train young elephants to lift their legs and push their feet through the fence so that the keepers could examine their soles. Elephants are big beasts and they are tough, but they are prone to foot problems so their feet are checked regularly. It’s also a very good area to draw blood in case the veterinary staff need to run tests. Elephants are trained at an early age to present their feet so that regular examinations can be completed using behaviors which seem ‘natural’ to the animals. Sorry, I don’t have a picture, no photos are allowed when you’re backstage!
We heard plenty of other interesting stories as we toured the veterinary building. We watched as they x-rayed the wing of a fruit bat; they held the sedated bat and extended the wings . . . wow! Those bats are huge!
We visited the food preparation area where all of the meals are prepared for each animal, big or small. Cast members have binders full of menus, each page in the binder is the menu for one of the animals, and they carefully pack each item on the menu into a plastic container, or a bucket, or a box. There was an amazing variety of food being packed into those containers, grasses, meats, fish, worms, insects . . . we even watched as they prepared a bucket full of herring which would soon be lunch for that saddle-billed stork.
The guides told us some very interesting stories about the animals, and described a few little tricks they use to keep the animals out in areas where guests in the park can see them. Have you ever wondered why the lions spend so much time on top of those rocks they call the kopje?
According to our guide there are two reasons, first there are a couple of ‘climate-controlled’ rocks to make the lions comfortable. If the weather is hot the rocks are cooled, if it’s a cool day the rocks are heated.
The second reason they stay on top — behind one of the rocks, where it cannot be seen by guests, there is a steel post driven into the ground. A frozen treat is chained to the post; as the treat melts the lions can wander over and enjoy a snack. I don’t know exactly what they use as a treat, but our guide referred to it as a ‘bunny-sicle’.
When we returned home after that trip the Winter 2003 issue of Disney Magazine was waiting in the mail. I was really surprised to read an article titled “All Creatures Great and Small” by Lisa Stiepack. I couldn’t believe the coincidental timing of the article, so soon after our tour! Lisa described her experiences as she spent an entire day with Disney Animal Behavior Specialist Chris Breder. The two ladies toured the entire park, interacting with the animals and their keepers and handlers. A lot of the ‘inside stories’ and animal behavior facts we heard on our tour are included in Lisa Stiepack’s article.
Let’s take a closer look. Click on each picture to see a larger version which you can read.
Who would have guessed that the Okapi like their yams cooked with allspice?
Gorillas like oranges so they are used to help train the animals. When the gorilla goes to a designated spot the trainer tosses him an orange.
Don’t try this at home kids! Please don’t throw things at the gorillas!
The elephant handler, Bruce, refers to the elephant’s food as browse. I had never heard browse used in that context so I checked the dictionary . . . sure enough . . . NOUN: tender shoots or twigs of shrubs and trees as food for cattle, deer,etc.
Did you know that the Nile Monitor Lizard is named Barney and he loves to play in the waterfall?
There’s that saddle-billed stork standing on his board while Kim tosses him his lunch. We saw those two just a few days ago!
“What do you do for a living?” “I brush monkey’s teeth at Walt Disney World.” Yes, that really is a thing!
And the tigers . . . when they curl their lips and stick their tongues out in a very exaggerated fashion they are saying, “I really love your cheap perfume.”
That cute and cuddly Marabou Stork is named Wallace.
Giraffes don’t like paper clips. I did not know that!
Carol and I have taken many Disney tours over the years and we’ve never been disappointed. They always put a little bit of ‘extra magic’ in our vacations.
I’m not sure the Backstage Safari tour is still offered, I can’t find any reference to it on the Disney web site, but there are plenty of other tours available. Check online or stop at the Curiosity Animal Tours booth near the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris and book whatever tour appeals to you!
Oh yes . . . I almost forgot to answer that question. Do hippos like country music? I don’t know for sure, and I’ve never seen one at the Grand Ole Opry, but Jay, who manages Disney’s rhino and hippo barns, says definitively that they do. That’s good enough for me!