Bringing the Zoo to You!

We are very excited to welcome Virginia opossums Seamus and Fiona to our Program Animal Team. They are a great native species and will join our other animal ambassadors helping to spread the mission of the Virginia Zoo to visitors, school groups, summer safari campers and sleep over participants. Before going on an educational program Seamus and Fiona will undergo conditioning and training to get them ready to meet visitors.

Each animal that comes into our Program Animal Team is handled by a limited number of staff at first to keep training and handling consistent. The conditioning plan for each animal is tailored to that specific animal’s personality as well as their mental and physical abilities. The conditioning process consists of the trainer socializing with the animal first. This can be sitting with an animal in the outside exercise yard, feeding the animal and even just talking to the animal. The next step is getting the animal used to being handled. We start by handling the animal for a short time, 3-5 minutes, and increase the time from there. We always keep interactions positive and minimize stress to the animal. During the conditioning process we will also introduce the animals to their travel crates and begin to travel short distances with them; for instance to an onsite zoo classroom and back.

Once an animal is ready to be introduced to visitors we will practice with staff bringing the animal out to meet small groups people and slowly increase the number of people in the group. When the animal shows us that they are comfortable with groups of people we will bring them on an onsite program to meet guests for the first time. Throughout the entire process we keep detailed records to show the animal’s progress.

Seamus and Fiona were hand-reared by our veterinary staff so they already have a positive relationship with people and have quickly adapted to life in their new home. Recently they were moved to our Program Animal Building where our other animal ambassadors live.

Fiona has already shown to be the outgoing one of the brother-sister pair. She is the first to greet us in the morning and has started to explore her surroundings almost immediately after being introduced into their new enclosure. Seamus is a little shyer and waits for his big sister to check things out and come back for him before exploring.  Both have started their conditioning and will hopefully be ready for programs late this fall.

We can’t wait to share them with you!

Stephanie Peters, Program Animal Coordinator