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COAL VALLEY — It is barely 8 a.m., and hungry mouths are waiting for Kristina Stump.

As the primary keeper of hoofed animals at Niabi Zoo, Stump is responsible for overseeing the care of nearly 30 animals. 

She has her hands full with two giraffes, two zebras, two Bactrian camels, one dromedary camel, two yellow-backed duikers (African antelopes), four San Clemente Island goats, two dwarf cebu (similar to a cow), two alpacas, one llama, and two mini donkeys. She also cares for four domestic chickens, two French lop-eared rabbits and an ostrich. 

Although not a hoofed animal, the ostrich is part of a package deal. It shares an enclosure with its wildlife buddies, the zebras, two females named Bella and Blenda. 

Stump grew up in Taylor Ridge and graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island with a biology degree. 

"I knew I wanted to work with animals in some capacity," she says. "I had a couple friends who volunteered (at Niabi), so I did that and fell in love with it. I eventually got a seasonal job. After a year, a full-time position opened up, and I got that."

Stump says the best part of her job is the relationships she has developed with the animals. 

"I really enjoy the trust relationship you can build with animals you work with daily through taking care of them and the training we do with them," she says. "Just seeing the trust they have in us as their keepers."

Stump, 36, has been an animal keeper with the zoo for 13 years. She is one of 11 full-time year-round zookeepers. The staff also includes several seasonal employees. 

"The first thing I do each morning is visual checks of all the animals," she says.

Stump says she makes sure nothing is wrong with the animals or out of place within their enclosures. When an animal exhibits unusual behavior, she says, it could mean it is sick or hurt, or something else might be wrong. 

When the wellness checks are done, Stump is ready to start feeding the stock. 

She leaves the front office at the zoo just before 8 a.m. and hops into a golf cart, which she drives through the zoo and into a gated employees-only area unseen by zoo visitors. 

She arrives at the nutrition center, the storage building used to house feed for every animal living at the zoo.

A large industrial kitchen with stainless-steel counters holds a food dehydrator filled with zucchini and peas. A color-coded notebook stands upright on the center counter. It's organized according to animal groups, instructing zookeepers on the exact diet for each animal. 

In a side storage room, bags of food are stacked six feet high and organized according to animal groups. 

Stump walks between shelves filled with bags of pellets labeled wild herbivore, primate and reptile. The facing shelves hold stacks of canned food, some of them marked for primates. 

"Some species require more than one feeding," Stump says. "A lot of the hoofed stock need more; it's beneficial to feed them multiple times a day."

After grabbing bags of food for the alpacas and llama, Stump exits the building and walks to a free-standing refrigerator used to store large bags of tree branches.

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Stump explains that some animals are browsers and some are grazers. 

"Giraffes are primarily browsers; zebras are primarily grazers," Stump says. "In the summer, we spend a lot of time going around cutting fresh tree branches (for the giraffes). We bag them up and freeze them for the winter. Over the winter, they can get fresh tree leaves; they still have their nutritional value. ... It also gives them a more natural way to eat. In the wild, a giraffe will spend 75 percent of their time browsing and eating."

Stump says a big part of her job is balancing the browsed food with the pellets, so the animals don't consume pellets all the time.  

"It's part of their diet, and it's also part of their enrichment," Stump says. "It's giving the animals a novel thing to do to bring out their natural behavior."

With the golf cart loaded up with food and bag of browsing material for the giraffes, Stump ventures back into the main zoo area. She says the animals know when it's feeding time. 

"Most of the hoof-stock animals come greet us," she says, pulling up in front of the llama and alpaca enclosure. 

As if on cue, two alpacas and a llama quickly move toward Stump. 

It is now 8:25 a.m., and Stump is scooping out food pellets. 

"Typically they go in the same order to get fed," Stump says. "Some of the animals do know their names."

They line up in order: a large, white female llama named Lala is first, followed by a black male alpaca named Mani, and then a brown female alpaca named Paila. 

Lala's ear perk up when she hears her name. 

Two male donkeys named Jester and Job are waiting patiently in their enclosure nearby for their breakfast. At 8:38 a.m., Stump grabs a bale of hay out of the adjacent storage shed and hangs it in a net from the fence so the donkeys can eat from it over several hours. 

By 8:45 a.m., Stump is back in the cart and driving over to the giraffe barn to deliver the bag of branches for browsing.  

Entering the barn, the two giraffes react with restlessness to Stump's arrival and begin pacing with anticipation. Twiga, a 12-year-old female, and Kenya, a 12-year-old male, strain to see what Stump is doing. They're in separate enclosures, and Twiga currently has the better view. 

Twiga waits as Stump climbs stairs to a platform and picks up a long rope tied to the remains of yesterday's already-eaten branches. Stump ties the fresh branches to the rope and lowers it slowly as Twiga continues to circle her enclosure, eager to eat her breakfast. 

"They get one bundle of browse per day that they share," Stump says. "They always have access to hay."

With her work done in the giraffe barn, Stump exits and gets back into the golf cart. 

There is always something to be done. 

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