An African gray parrot changes lives at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo

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The 23-year-old African gray parrot’s beady yellow eyes, curved beak, red tail and huge wingspan terrified Amanda Wright. Until he changed her life.

Tut, one of the ambassador animals at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, was donated by a private owner in 2012. Wright, who earned her associate degree in zoo animal technology from Santa Fe College in 2018, was Tut’s first trainer. 

When she received her training assignment from her instructor in 2017, she hoped she would not be paired with a bird. She particularly did not want to work with Tut, the smartest bird at the zoo.

“Tut was, in my mind, the most intimidating animal in the entire zoo,” she said. “I can’t say why they decided to pair me up with Tut, but I can say that they made a great choice.”

Amanda Wright works with Tut, Santa Fe Teaching Zoo’s African gray parrot, as his first trainer. “Training him was the highlight of my day, every day,” she said. “Seeing him, I couldn’t help grinning. He just made me smile.” (Courtesy of Amanda Wright)

During the third semester of the five-semester program, students take a zoo topics class to learn about animal behavior and training. The test at the end of the semester determines who will move on to train animals at the zoo, and then instructors match animals and student trainers.

“(Wright) was an education apprentice, and we knew that Tut was going to be trained to be doing education and teach people about parrots and how to be responsible pet owners,” said Jade Salamone, a conservation education curator. “She was very good at talking about animals and being a presenter and a voice for animals.”

Animals, particularly parrots, need consistency and routine. The first step was for Wright and Tut to build a relationship.

Tut, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo’s only African gray parrot, sits on his perch in his enclosure. “Tut came to us from a private owner,” zookeeper Spring Williams said. (Courtesy of Matt Stamey/Santa Fe College)

“Tut had to learn to trust me not to do anything unsettling, and I had to learn to trust Tut not to bite me with that nutshell-crushing beak of his,” Wright said. 

As Tut began to grow on Wright, she overcame her fear of birds, and Tut became the highlight of her day.

“No longer was I afraid of their beaks and their beady eyes,” she said. “I learned to love their adorable waddling walks, the way they turn their heads sideways to get a look at something that fascinates them, and their little feather pants.”

Wright, 30, said she started picking up on Tut’s quirks and personality over time. She describes him as hilarious, larger-than-life, stubborn and manipulative.

“African grays can mimic people’s voices right down to their intonation, so he would sometimes say something just as a student was walking by making them whirl around expecting to see a zoo manager behind them,” she said. “But it was only Tut.”

The bird is part of the zoo’s educational programs, which include virtual presentations and library and after-school programs. The zoo also hosts events and birthday parties where people can see Tut work with his trainer while a narrator teaches the crowd. 

He knows a range of commands, including nodding his head, lifting his wings, differentiating shapes and painting on a canvas.

After Wright, Tut had five trainers. 

Spring Williams, 20, is his current trainer. She said their personalities work well together, which is an attribute that instructors watch when assigning a trainer to an animal.

“I think sometimes Tut is a little ball of chaos, but in the best way ever,” she said. “I would say that my friends might describe me the same way sometimes. He is, I think in every way, similar to me.”

The zoo focuses on positive reinforcement and gives the animals autonomy when it comes to training them. This helps ambassador animals interact with the people they help educate and it provides a sense of control during veterinary care.

Visitors stop to watch Tut, the African gray parrot, in his enclosure at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo on Oct. 9. “A lot of the children tend to want to pet the birds or feed the birds,” zookeeper Spring Williams said. “So I try to take those opportunities just like learning opportunities to talk about why we don’t want to feed wild birds or touch animals, in general.” (Jasper Wittig/WUFT News)

“I do believe that an animal can be trained to do anything as long as your trainer has patience and really understands the science and the art of training,” Williams said. 

The white-throated capuchin monkeys learned to give zookeepers permission to touch them, which helps with their examinations and when they have injuries that need treating. One of the armadillos at the zoo is currently being trained to sit still on a perch while getting an ultrasound.

The zoo gives students an opportunity to work intimately with a variety of animals that they otherwise would not have access to. Gladi Gomez, 21, is a zookeeper in the program and has been fascinated with animals since she started watching “Animal Planet” as a 5-year-old. Her interest in zookeeping goes beyond simply scooping poop and cleaning enclosures.

“It’s more so seeing how they are, how their species is, learning about the species and bringing it out to the public and telling people how good it is to help these animals,” she said.

Zookeeper Gladi Gomez, 21, helps in the walk-through aviary at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo on Oct. 9. She said she has wanted to work with animals since she was a little girl. (Jasper Wittig/WUFT News)

Gomez emphasized the importance of taking care of the environment and actively working to prevent climate change. 

Some of the biggest ways to help the environment, she said, are to use less paper, pick up trash and limit the use of resources such as water. The zoo also serves as a sanctuary for animals that would not be able to survive on their own due to injuries or poor environmental conditions.

“I would love for all of our animals to be out in the wild and live their best life and have a good population,” she said. “But, unfortunately, there’s a lot of things going on in our world that won’t let that happen.”

Wright said she finds working with animals important for both the animals and the zookeepers. It provided her with skills she used years later in the field of librarianship. And the health and wellness of the animals are secured. She sees zoos as a path to a future where people can better understand and respect the environment.

“Zoos entertain people, yes, but their real lasting impact is their ability to inspire, to make people care,” Wright said.

About Jasper Wittig

Jasper is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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