ZOO-ology: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

June 2023
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
courtesy of shutterstock; Paul Grimshaw & Katie Bernashe

A Day in the Life of Brookgreen Gardens' Zookeepers

Critically endangered red wolves,  once common throughout the Southeast, will come to Brookgreen Gardens in a new habitat designed just for them. 

Unless you’re new to the Grand Strand, you already know about Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, the massive Fighting Stallions sculpture at its front entrance, its hundreds of acres of beautifully landscaped sculpture gardens and its many popular annual events. Brookgreen is now in its 91st year, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and recently ranked seventh out of the ten best botanical gardens in the nation by USA Today.

But did you also know that Brookgreen Gardens is home to the Lowcountry Zoo? Accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which is no small feat, this zoo and rehabilitation center is larger than you might guess and does important behind-the-scenes work that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. 

Volunteer Inge Ebert (above) prepares food for many of the Lowcountry Zoo's residents.

The Lowcountry Zoo provides two primary and important functions: education and caring for sick or injured animals, many of which would otherwise perish in the wild. It’s home to several bird aviaries, farm-style habitats for native horses, such as the Marsh Tacky, along with friendly Spanish goats, ducks, chickens, and other Lowcountry farm animals. Additional facilities are home to playful river otters, birds of prey, and an exciting new exhibit coming this summer: a red wolf habitat. They are all a part of the animal life so common in the region during America’s Colonial period, when Brookgreen Gardens was once a part of three large rice plantations. 

With the sheer size of the zoo and its some 200 animal residents, we wondered about its upkeep and the amount of work required to provide enrichment for the animals and to keep them happy and healthy. I recently spent a good part of the day with several zookeepers and volunteers who were going about their daily business. I had a lot to learn, as visitors to the Lowcountry Zoo will find out for themselves.

(Left to right) 9:23 a.m. - Dacota Owens and Tara Johns-Berry (foreground), toss boxes of frozen fish; 9:55 a.m. - Dacota Owens, zookeeper and animal care supervisor, poses with Angus, a Scottish Deerhound who resides daytimes at Brookgreen Gardens as an animal ambassador; 9:45 a.m. - A 30-year volunteer, Millie Doud, 92, feeds snakes without any apprehension. 

9:23 a.m.
I first meet Brookgreen’s zookeepers as they are stacking boxes of frozen smelt in a giant walk-in freezer, making room for a truckload of even more smelt, which is enroute. The thousands of pounds of fish stored and replenished regularly are used mainly to feed the birds and otters. It’s used as extra protein or treats for other animals as well.

“The opossums get fish twice a week,” says Dacota Owens, Animal Care Supervisor, while catching her breath after tossing dozens of 30-pound boxes of frozen fish, Seattle fish market-style, to other zookeepers. “We go through quite a bit.”

With the exception of just a few outliers, all the animals at the Lowcountry Zoo are either indigenous to the region or are descendants of stock animals first brought by the mostly Spanish explorers to the region about 400 years ago. 

These animals have adapted quite well to becoming “American.” Other species at the zoo are representative of animals that have roamed the region for centuries, if not millennia. The American Alligator, for example, common to South Carolina’s coastal zone, is thought to be some 2.5 million years old, with little change.

Owens, 32, is originally from North Carolina. She’s been with Brookgreen Gardens for eight years, after starting as an intern while studying for a degree in Zoo and Aquarium Science from Davidson County Community College.
Her partner in the fish toss, Tara Johns-Berry, has been with Brookgreen for six years.

“I started in The Butterfly Hut [as a Butterfly Keeper] and worked my way in to the rest of the Zoo,” she says. The two women are part of a small, hardworking staff under the leadership of Vice President and Curator of Zoological Collection Andrea DeMuth. Owens is on the closing shift and will leave around 5 p.m. and Johns-Berry is a midday zookeeper working 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Another zookeeper I meet later is on the early shift around 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

“The morning shift person’s first duty is to check on all the animals,” says Owens. “Then they switch to the heavy morning cleans and feeds.” As is standard at virtually all animal parks, zoos and sanctuaries, there’s a lot of cleaning, and a lot of poop. “It’s all part of the job,” adds Owens, with a weary smile.

There are approximately 200 animals in the care of the Lowcountry Zoo, including snakes, birds, a resident alligator (and the occasional visitor), otters, foxes, and perhaps Brookgreen Garden’s most famous animal, Angus, the gentle giant Scottish Deerhound who resides at the zoo during the day, and goes home with Brookgreen CEO Page Kiniry or zoo director, DeMuth, each night. 

Where are all these animals?

The Cypress Aviary alone is home to around 100 birds, accounting for around half of the zoo’s population. The best way to see the zoo and learn about its residents is being a part of one or more of Brookgreen’s dedicated education programs, including The Mother Nature’s Café program at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. All summer (weather-permitting), these programs are free for Brookgreen guests with paid admission. The Meet the Animals program is offered daily at 2:30 p.m. and the Alligator Feeding program occurs at 1:30 p.m. each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

9:44 a.m.
We move into one of the zoo’s non-public buildings where trays filled with a variety of food are being prepared for a daily feeding. Every bit of horizontal space is occupied in this kitchen area. A Red-Eared Slider turtle pulled from the wild and needing rehab floats lazily in his aquarium.

“This guy had significant shell damage,” says Owens, “probably hit by a car, so he stays with us in here. When he’s better, he will join the birds in the Cypress Aviary. He can’t be released into the wild because he’s part of an invasive species that competes with native turtles.”

“Here’s a Diamondback Terrapin that was found as a hatchling near the beach at Ocean Lakes Campground,” continues Owens, pointing out another turtle in a separate habitat. “She was not getting along with her other hatchlings, so she came to us.”

Volunteer Inge Ebert, who says she “fell in love” with Brookgreen Gardens on her first visit in 1969, helps prepare food and is one among an army of volunteers Brookgreen Gardens relies on.

“I am the original Hamburger,” she says with a mischievous grin through a thick German accent, a product of her upbringing in Hamburg, Germany. She is adept at the process of feeding the animals for whom she devotedly volunteers her time, and she’s only one of many at the Lowcountry Zoo who feel passionate enough about the animals to give of their time and talent.

Volunteer Millie Doud, 92, recently received her 30-year pin. In addition to illustrating books (sold at the Brookgreen Gift Shop), she is adept at feeding frozen and thawed mice to the many snakes used in the zoo’s educational programs. Doud, a retired high school art teacher, moved to the area in 1992 and has held a variety of volunteer positions at Brookgreen, including the current one as a fearless snake handler.

“I’ve only been bitten once,” says Doud, “but it was not out of aggression, it was just a miscalculation [of distance] during a feeding.”

We leave Doud to her duties and move on to the birds in the back of the building.

“All of our birds are rehabilitation animals,” explains Owens as we approach an enclosure to meet one of the gals in rehab.

“Miss Alice here is a barn owl,” she says, “and she has a slight head injury.” The beautiful, medium-sized raptor bobs her head back and forth, which I’m told is a defense mechanism.

Barn owls once had a bad reputation, I’m told. These nocturnal creatures, with ghostly white faces, would perch in barns, hiss and bob their heads looking like Haints and Boo Hags, scaring the bejesus out of anyone who happened upon them. Alice, however, in the light of day, is simply magnificent.

“Miss Lucy is in retirement,” says Owens, taking me to another enclosure to show me a small screech owl who is completely blind.  “It’s thought Lucy was probably hit by a car, which is common among screech owls. People don’t realize something as simple as throwing an apple core out of the window on the side of the road can kill an owl. Mice come up to the side of the road to feed on litter, like apple cores, which can trigger a nearby screech owl, who comes swooping in for a mouse meal only to meet the windshield or front tire of an oncoming car.” 

Owens came by her love of animals honestly, and from an early age.

“We had chickens, goats, rabbits and all that,” she says of her semi-rural North Carolina childhood. After high school she knew just what she wanted to do. “I was planning on going into animal science and teaching and needed some science credit. I ended up in my community college’s zoo program, and found I really liked it.” 

The zookeeper’s challenge and joy come in the care for the animals and the high standards to which Brookgreen’s zoo must adhere. Brookgreen’s Lowcountry Zoo has been Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited for about 50 years.

“It means we meet their standards for animal care, enrichment, and are subject to regular inspections,” says Owens. “We’re also inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The AZA has really rigid standards to make sure the animals are receiving the absolute best care, that they’re not just sitting in enclosures, and are well fed and happy.”

10:01 a.m.
Morning shift zookeeper Katie Bernashe has just reported via radio that one of the otters has a small injury to its tail. It seems the otter became aggressive with another, leading to this injury, which will require looking after. A few moments later Bernashe, donning muddy boots, arrives in person.

“Well, I just had otter poop water splashed in my face,” she says, not exactly smiling, but not terribly surprised or upset, either.

“That happens more than you might think,” adds Owens sympathetically. 

“Otters are extremely adorable but also extremely aggressive,” continues Owens, making room in her small four-wheeler for zookeeper Bernashe and me. “Though they’re very playful, I like to tell people they’re ‘adorably vicious.’”

We head to the outdoor otter exhibit, which also features a large natural tidal creek outdoor space, along with a 6,000-gallon tank, where visitors can observe the playful creatures up close. Bernashe, a recent college grad from Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, has been with Brookgreen Gardens for just less than a year. She majored in biology and, after a few internships, secured a position. It was during a morning feeding on the day I visited that she discovered the small wound. The zookeepers don’t think this minor injury will require veterinary care, but will thoroughly investigate before deciding.

“The vets, according to AZA accreditation, are out here at least twice a month,” says Owens, “plus, Tara is a veterinary technician, so that helps out. She had like 30-something years’ experience as a vet tech before she ever even came to us.” After we arrived and Owens calls out to the otters who are snoozing in a hammock, it’s determined that the wound is minor and won’t require immediate veterinary care; they’ll take photos of the wound and ask the vet if it should be treated with antibiotics.

“We have some otters that were born here at the zoo,” says Owens, “and we have others that were injured or abandoned in the wild.”

Every animal at the zoo was either born in captivity, or sent there for rehabilitation for a life-threatening injury, preventing it from surviving in the wild.

10:16 a.m. - River otters (above) spend their day snoozing, eating, and playing. Lucy, a blind screech owl, enjoys a quiet retirement.

10:16 a.m.
“How much longer you think you’re going to be?” comes an urgent, disembodied voice over the radio. It seems there’s work to be done and all hands are required. The fish truck has arrived. We hop back on the four-wheeler for a quick ride through the woods on trails not open to the public. The large fish truck is too big to drive into the zoo, so it parks as close as possible to unload. Each pallet of frozen fish is driven with a forklift to the freezer, where more tossing and stacking takes place. The boss, DeMuth, though a Brookgreen vice president, drives the forklift and is not afraid to get fishy along with her staff.

10:41 a.m.
Habitat construction has been continuous all morning, as the zoo prepares for the pending arrival of the critically endangered red wolf, once common throughout the southeastern U.S. and now facing extinction. There are very few thought to exist in the wild, and just a few hundred in breeding programs around the U.S., and now at the Lowcountry Zoo.
Smaller than the gray wolf, the red wolf is sometimes mistaken for a coyote. Aggressive hunting and predator control programs from the late 1800s into the 1900s decimated the once-thriving animal population, which feeds on small rodents, rabbits, and other wildlife.

“People used to shoot red wolves, thinking that they were coming after their chickens,” says Owens, “which is not their M.O. That’s what foxes and coyotes do. Red wolves are much shyer than coyotes, who will ravage a chicken coop given a chance. Red wolves actually can help keep the coyote population in check.”

“One of our goals with the new red wolf exhibit is to eventually have a successful breeding pair, so we can help reintroduce them into the wild,” says Owens. “If we’re successful and a breeding pair has pups, we will then look for a den in the wild, where we can slide them in when they’re just days old. It’s been found this is the most successful way to increase their population.”

DeMuth, who’s in her 17th year at Brookgreen, is just as excited about the new arrivals as the rest of the staff.
“We haven’t had a new major exhibit since our underwater otter exhibit opened in 2008,” she says. “We’re very excited for their arrivals.” 

11:10 a.m.
I join a tour already in progress and learn the fascinating history of the Marsh Tacky, native to South Carolina and descended from Colonial Spanish horses left on our shores in the 16th century.  We meet the two horses, Tuff and Sparkleberry, and are able to pet one, but warned against trying to pet the other. 

“She bites,” warns volunteer Royann Kinel, who knows the history well and explains that without the Marsh Tacky, well suited to our swamps and lowlands, Francis Marion’s troops may have lost the Revolutionary War. The British, with their much larger horses, couldn’t navigate in the mud as well, giving the smaller Marsh Tacky a distinct advantage.

The tour continues through the Lowcountry farm re-creation, meeting endangered Tunis sheep, descendants from a gift given by the Bey of Tunis (Tunisia’s ruler) to George Washington in 1799. 

On through to the marshlands, we walk along raised boardwalks, learning not only about the animals indigenous to the area but the flora as well. The walk is slow, calming, peaceful and flat as a pancake, making it easy for most all abilities. A few kids and their grandparents are enjoying the tour together.

“This is a live oak,” Kinel explains. “They’re very strong, have deep roots, do well in storms, and are long-lived. They were used in ship-building. The Spanish moss that hangs from them is an air plant and is non-parasitic. It’s a part of the pineapple family and it got its name from the Spanish settlers and their long beards. It’s a Southern thing.”
We visit the large bird aviaries, learn about the variety of birds and their behaviors, and stand just a few inches above the cypress swamps that once covered large swaths of South Carolina. 

“This is pluff mud,” explains Kinel. “It’s Southern quicksand. You do not want to get stuck in it.”

Finally, we make our way back to the river otter habitat, arguably the most popular exhibit at the zoo. These smart and playful creatures are curious and cute, but not cuddly. Kinel throws smelt to them to entice them off their hammock and to get them closer to the group as they enjoy a lunchtime snack.

Around two years ago, one of the females gave birth to five kits, who she dutifully taught to swim – it’s not instinctual. She tolerated all the attention you’d expect baby otters to garner, but the zoo found itself in the enviable position of having too many river otters.

“Suddenly we had eight otters, more than the habitat could handle,” says Kinel, “and had to find homes at other AZA zoos. Those zoos had to apply, and I think it would have been easier to get into MIT than it was to get one of our otters.”

12:46 p.m. - A young zoo visitor carefully approaches a baby Spanish goat, descended from livestock brought here by Spanish explorers. Zookeeper Dacota Owens feeds Precious, an extremely affable white-tailed deer.

12:22 p.m.
After lunch I’m told by the zookeepers that more animal welfare checks would take place, more feeding, more cleaning, and more planning for the next day’s long list of chores.

Just before I leave, we meet Precious, a white-tailed deer raised from a fawn at Brookgeen, who, unlike the other skittish deer in the herd, will come when called and likes to be hand fed. Though they’ve seen it a thousand times, Owens and Bernashe can’t help but smile broadly as Precious runs up to greet them. I could have asked the question of any of the zookeepers, and likely gotten the same answer, but Owens was nearest.

“Do you love your job?” I ask.

“I really do,” she says.

Visit brookgreen.org for hours of operation, ticketing, and additional information