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Niabi's head animal keeper scratched by birds, but she cuddles with porcupines
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Niabi Zoo head animal keeper Mandy Turnbull talks with 'Eduardo,' a male eclectus parrot, before cleaning its cage.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Niabi Zoo head animal keeper Mandy Turnbull cleans and disinfects the king vulture cage.
COAL VALLEY -- The birds' ear-piercing squawks met the swish-swish of Mandy Turnbull's scrub brush, creating a laughable chorus that resonated throughout the aviary.

"None of us have a problem with the cleaning," said Ms. Turnbull, head animal keeper at Niabi Zoo, as she alternated between spraying and scrubbing.

The 40-acre zoo wasn't always as it is today. According to Niabi's website, in 1957, Gordon McLain, amasonry contractor with an interest in exotic animals, bought a parcel of land off of U.S. 6 in Coal Valley. In 1959, he opened McLain's Wild Animal Farm to the public.

In January 1963, Mrs. Charles Deere Wiman (wife of the great grandson of John Deere) purchased the farm and some additional land. In May of that year, she deeded the farm to Rock Island County and the zoo was named Niabi, which means "young deer spared by the hunter" in the Osage Indian language.

"These animals depend on us," Ms. Turnbull said, adding that that motivates keepers to "provide the best care that we can. It's very gratifying."

Ms. Turnbull said her work day begins with a meeting at 8 a.m., where the eight to nine keepers share information about the previous day's events.Then the keepers begin work in their assigned areas. Each keeper is trained in every area of the zoo, Ms. Turnbull said, and alternate duties.

In the winter, she said keepers generally work from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and in the summer they work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ms. Turnbull said the zoo is broken down by areas, including elephants and the petting zoo; hoofstock, which is giraffes and other hoofed animals; cats, reptiles and other dangerous animals including bears, wolves and porcupines; birds, and primates and other animals used for education programs.

In each area, Ms. Turnbull said the keepers feed and clean up after the animals. She said each habitat is on a different disinfecting schedule, and every animal requires different care.

After that comes husbandry training, during which keepers teach animals behaviors that make it easier for them to be taken care of, and enrichment, which is any activity that promotes a natural behavior.

With the training, for example, Ms. Turnbull said they might work with a giraffe to teach it to be comfortable in what they call a "squeeze cage," where it would be placed if it needed a medical procedure. Another example is teaching a cat to "go up," or stand on its hind legs, when a trainer motions both hands up in the air like two high fives. This allows the keeper to inspect the cat's belly.

Enrichment includes a number of activities from putting camels' fur into the wolves' den or feathers in with the cats to giving gibbons apes a puzzle feeder with food inside. "It's something different in their environment that stimulates them," said Ms. Turnbull.

On one recent day, Ms. Turnbull's duties were in the aviary. She said it takes two keepers to tackle the house -- one cleans the north side, and the other cleans the south side and habitats down the center. "It takes about an hour and a half," she said.

In each enclosure, Ms. Turnbull sprayed the sudsy cleaner, and then scrubbed the floors. She said the cleanser also had a disinfectant in it to ward off parasites.

On she went through the line of enclosures. Spray, scrub, spray, scrub, while ducking and contorting herself to avoid branches and perches.

"In some cases, it's the same thing every day," she said of the cleaning, feeding and care of the animals. "But every day is different, too."

She said it's fun and interesting to learn each of the birds' personalities. Ruby, for instance, a bright red femaleEclectus parrot, "likes to try to escape," Ms. Turnbull said.

As she went into the parrot's enclosure, sure enough, Ruby scooted down her perch, heading for the door. "I don't think so!" Ms. Turnbull said.

Working with the birds, she said she has been clawed, scratched and bit. "It's kind of the nature of the job," she said. "It's the parrots' beaks you have to watch out for," she said, explaining that a parrot's bite packs about 1,200 pounds of pressure per square inch. "You do not want to get bit by a McCaw -- it's not fun."

Ms. Turnbull said she always knew she wanted to work with animals; she just wasn't sure in what capacity. A native of Munster, Ind., she came to the Quad-Cities to attend Augustana College and graduated in 2002. While in school, one of her professors suggested she try an internship at the zoo.

During that three-month internship, "I fell in love with it completely," she said.

She said she thought being an animal keeper was "one of those dream, unattainable jobs nobody ever gets," but when she applied for an open keeper position, she was hired.

Now she lives in Moline and she's been with the zoo for eight-and-a-half years, but she said it doesn't seem like it. "It's amazing," she said."I think I have the coolest job in the world, so getting to do something I love every day is a huge perk."

Working with all the animals at the zoo makes it hard to play favorites, Ms. Turnbull said, but one of her favorites to work with are the elephants. "They're so huge, and yet they respond so well. It's just indescribable," she said. "You build a relationship with them."

She also enjoys working with the porcupines. "I never knew porcupines had such a personality.

"They're big babies," she said. While it may seem unbelievable, she added, "you can snuggle with a porcupine!"

Ms. Turnbull said the public tends to have the misconception that keepers just play with the animals all day, but there's more to it than that.

"It's a lot of hard work," she said. "It's very physically demanding," she added, with tasks like unloading hay, dragging branches for perches out of the forest preserve grounds and working outside in all temperatures.

But "if you love your job, it's doable," she said.

She pushed her hands into the pockets of her tan work coat, scraping her tall rubber boots along the cement as she walked and talked.

"It's not too glamorous," she said. "But it's fun."

Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, April 23, the 113th day of 2014. There are 252 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: Some persons are negotiating for 80 feet of ground on Illinois Street with a view of erecting four stores thereon. It would serve a better purpose if the money was invested in neat tenement houses.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Central station, car house and stables of the Moline-Rock Island Horse Railway line of the Holmes syndicate, together with 15 cars and 42 head of horses, were destroyed by fire. The loss was at $15,000.
1914 — 100 years ago: Vera Cruz, Mexico, after a day and night of resistance to American forces, gradually ceased opposition. The American forces took complete control of the city.
1939 — 75 years ago: Dr. R. Bruce Collins was reelected for a second term as president of the Lower Rock Island County Tuberculosis Association.
1964 — 50 years ago: Work is scheduled to begin this summer on construction of a new men's residence complex and an addition to the dining facilities at Westerlin Hall at Augustana College.
1989 — 25 years ago: Special Olympics competitors were triple winners at Rock Island High School Saturday. The participants vanquished the rain that fell during the competition, and some won their events; but most important, they triumphed over their own disabilities.

(More History)