Virginia Zoo keeper travels to Malaysia to educate locals on animal care

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Virginia Zoo keeper Bethany Baran spent two weeks in Malaysia sharing her expertise with keepers at the Melaka Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Baran)
Virginia Zoo keeper Bethany Baran spent two weeks in Malaysia sharing her expertise with keepers at the Melaka Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Baran)

Scent trails, puzzle feeders, and endangered animals are all in a day’s work for Bethany Baran.

As a zookeeper at the Virginia Zoo, Baran has spent three and a half years working with an array of creatures from East Asia, including orangutans, gibbons, tigers, sun bears, and red pandas.

Baran recently returned from a two-week training journey to Malaysia, the native home of many of the animals in her care, where she used her expertise to educate local keepers about animal care and training at the Melaka Zoo.

Baran works closely with many Southeast Asian animals at the Virginia Zoo, including red pandas. (Photo courtesy of Baran)
Baran works closely with many Southeast Asian animals at the Virginia Zoo, including red pandas. (Photo courtesy of Baran)

Jobs at zoos in the United States are competitive, and require extensive training and internship experience, but Malaysian zoos only require the educational equivalent of a high school diploma, Baran said.

“The main goal of the trip was to work with zookeepers at the Melaka Zoo to share our knowledge of the animals in their care,” Baran said. “This included sharing with the zookeepers best practices for daily husbandry, holding classes on enrichment and positive reinforcement training, and redoing a sun bear habitat.”

The trip was partially funded through a zookeeper program at the Virginia Zoo, and was done in collaboration with an organization called Orangutan Species Survival Plan and APE “Animal Projects & Environmental Education” Malaysia, which works to improve the lives of animals.

Baran travelled nearly 10,000 miles to Malaysian rainforests where she assisted Melaka zookeepers with cleaning enclosures, preparing diets, feeding animals, and other daily routines, Baran said.

“We would work on positive reinforcement and enrichment projects with the animals. This could be something as simple as planting a scent that the animal then smells, or a complicated feeder that an ape might use to obtain a treat,” she said. “These training sessions help to build positive relationships between the animals and the zookeepers.”

Enrichment is anything that helps mentally stimulate or bring out the natural behaviors of animals, which is an important part of daily routines in the United States.

In Malaysia, the zoo was full of natural and easy items that the team could use as enrichment for the animals, Baran said.

“There were huge bamboo stalks that we could cut down to make puzzle feeders, large palms that we put into a civet exhibit, and coconuts growing everywhere that made perfect balls for animals to play with.” she said. “Malaysia is a gorgeous country, and it was an awesome experience to see the native region of a lot of the animals I work with [at the Virginia Zoo]. It was cool to think there might be a wild tiger not too far from where I was.”

The change in scenery not only helped her connect back to her work in Virginia, it also reinforced Baran’s passion for conservation.

“During my two-and-a-half-hour drive to Melaka, all I could see out the window for miles and miles in either direction were palm plantations. These plantations take away valuable land from the native species and are contributing to the decline and extinction of many of the native wildlife,” she said. “It showed me the importance of the conservation efforts that zoos and aquariums support.”

Zookeepers in Malaysia may not have formal degrees in animal care, but they share the same dedication to their work and their environment, Baran said.

“Malaysian zookeepers are just as passionate about animals and as eager to learn as their counterparts here in the U.S.,” she said. “We both want to make sure that the animals in our care are well taken care of and are constantly looking for ways that we might improve.”

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com