Surrounded by posters and thank you cards and sweet messages from school kids, Jake Belair is a bit of a rock star at the Nashville Zoo. “I have a great deal of fun showing people, including a whole lot of kids, the glamorous side of animal keeping,” he says with his big grin.
Sweaty, grimy, and sporting rubber wading boots, Jake has spent the morning cutting tree branches for his parrots, hawks, and owls to perch on in their enclosures. From tortoises to leopards to snakes, Jake feeds, trains, and cleans the habitats for 70 animals under his care. “No one likes to take care of the messy stuff,” he laughs. “But we all do it – we love the animals.”
Photo courtesy of Jake Belair
A small group of keepers at the zoo are also part of the zoo’s Ambassador Program. Friendly, eloquent, and professional, (“thanks to my mother,” Jake quips), I immediately understand why Jake is a part of this crew. Living off-exhibit 24/7, the Ambassador animals travel to schools and community groups, visit children in hospitals, perform in amphitheater shows, and educate visitors around the zoo grounds.
Holding Melissa, a very large and intimidating ball python, Jake loves to teach kids AND adults why animals are important and how we can help them. Laughing, he insists I don’t need to love snakes, but I do need to appreciate them. But why? If not for the very un-cuddly reptiles, our world would be overrun with rats and pests.
Strolling through the zoo with a binturong – a critter with a face like a cat, a body like a bear, and a scent resembling popcorn – Jake hopes to teach every guest what they can do to help with wildlife conservation.
The aluminum cans containing the sparkling water and soda we love to drink? These indirectly cause deforestation and the destruction of animal habitats and food sources. Jake stresses the simple act of recycling the can increases the chance elephants and brown bears and chimpanzees and hummingbirds will be around for our great grandchildren to enjoy.
This effusive guy, who bakes and decorates insta-worthy cakes and treats in his spare time, points out animals thrive on learning new skills. Just like humans, “they like to continually discover new behaviors,” Jake explains. Training a hawk to catch a mouse in the air or teaching a macaw to fly from shoulder to shoulder, Jake stresses positive reinforcement. Everything the animals do is on their terms. “We never force them to do anything they don’t want to do,” Jake adds.
Every time Fern, the hugely popular sloth, does something he asks her to do, he gives her something she likes. Her treat of choice? Fern prefers Rose of Sharon flowers and, conveniently, a bush grows right outside Jake’s office building. “All of my animals are trained to crate themselves voluntarily for travel,” explains Jake. Fern will pop into her little carrier, hop on her perch, hang upside down- and wait for her favorite flower to appear.
On the other hand, “Fern is – let’s be honest – quite smelly,” Jake adds dryly. Odiferous animals are just an occupational hazard! And everyone, everyday, wants to see the brown, sleepy sloth. Although not fun to be close to, her scent is a great adaptation and a good communication tool in the dense and noisy rain forest.
If Jake is forced to choose, Faith and Hope, the two clouded leopards, are his two favorite animals at the zoo. Born, raised, and educated near Akron, Ohio, he has cared for tigers, cougars, bobcats, lynx, and cheetahs. According to Jake, the 35-pound clouded leopards with their gigantic canine teeth are “interesting and responsive cats to work with.”
Regarding diet, the folks at the Nashville Zoo “keep things as natural as possible.” Jake and his fellow keepers cut leaves on the zoo grounds for the herbivores who browse (graze) in the wild. Other animals devour small mammals, which are shipped to the zoo no longer alive. Jake tells me they don’t want the cats or snakes or owls to get injured eating their meal.
Unlike preparing for a horse or dog show, combing fur or bathing animals so they look and smell better is not done at the zoo. “Unless it is necessary for an animal’s health and well being, we don’t do it,” says Jake. Animals don’t care about hygiene as much as you or I do, I learn. They are simply concerned with survival.
Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms. -George Eliot
Adelaide, a 14-month old kookaburra, arrived in Nashville as a tiny baby. Born at the world famous San Diego Zoo, Jake is slowly, systematically, and positively exposing the Kingfisher to a variety of stimuli. “We noticed Adelaide was a little skittish when she arrived from California,” he says. “It is very reinforcing to me that we are good friends now,” Jake continues, “and she is comfortable with me.”
Jake loves interacting with zoo visitors and “sharing great animals with them.” “It’s an impactful thing for both them and me,” he admits. “At the Nashville Zoo, we are always trying to better ourselves and make the best decisions for our wonderful animals.”
Tags: animals, jake belair, Nashville, zoo
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