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Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is providing guests with a new way to learn about its residents in their brand-new Animal Care Center, which opened to the public this week. Visitors to the park will be able to go behind the scenes as the staff deals with everything from exotic animal nutrition challenges to emergency surgeries. Vetstreet got a sneak peek at the center ahead of its opening.
The facility features a fully functional kitchen where experts like Zoo Education Specialist Jose Dominguez will give demonstrations, which will often be interactive, on the preparation and planning of the various animals' diets. During our visit, we saw Berko the cuscus (a marsupial) chow down on fruits and veggies, while Alfalfa the rock hyrax was more interested in checking out his surroundings.
Feeding the animals is far more involved than just knowing which ones are carnivores and which are herbivores, Dominguez explained, noting that the staff also has to keep track of certain animals' specific allergies. For instance, they have a tiger that cannot digest meat properly, so although he eats the same diet of meat mixed with bones and ligaments that his fellow tigers do, nutritionists also give him something to help with his digestion.
And there are plants to consider too. Busch Gardens has loads of landscaping, but some of the plants that are native to the sunny Florida climate, like nightshade, bird of paradise and pepper bush, are toxic to the animals. This means that in addition to creating specially prepared meals for the animals, the staff must remain on the lookout for new plants growing in the various enclosures in case an animal decides to give it a nibble.
But food prep is far from the only thing visitors will see in the Animal Care Center — they'll also have the opportunity to witness the medical side of Busch Gardens. Treatment rooms, a clinical lab and an interactive diagnostic activity are all set up as viewing rooms, so guests can watch everything from well animal exams (like we saw with one of the park's new akidnas—one of only two egg-laying mammals!), preventive care, maintenance treatments (such as the cold-laser therapy technicians performed on a flamingo's chapped feet; it stimulates bloodflow and promotes healing), and in some cases, surgeries. Even on big animals.
Veterinarians like Dr. Pete Black, who guided this portion of the tour for us, will narrate the procedures for visitors; additionally, information on the animals will always be provided to guests. For procedures like ultrasounds, monitors facing the public will show visitors exactly what the doctors are seeing, and, as long as they're not in an emergency situation where all their focus must be on the task at hand, doctors will explain what they're doing and what they're seeing as it's happening.
And yes, you read that right — that means you could walk in and see a team performing emergency surgery on a tiger. But just in case you (or your kids) are squeamish, there will always be a warning to let you know when a procedure might not be suitable for everyone to watch.
Just like in the nutrition center, guests have the ability to get involved in the treatment center as well. While they won't be drawing blood or setting broken bones, they can take part in a diagnostic exercise by scanning an interactive activity card at several stations as they follow an animal from diagnosis to treatment to blood and lab work to a final outcome.
What benefit does this addition provide? Jack Hanna, who has been visiting Busch Gardens yearly since he came through on his honeymoon in 1968, told us that he hopes this will engage visitors' interest in a way that lasts beyond their visit to the park. "You cannot have conservation without education," Hanna told us, explaining that while people go to Busch Gardens to have fun, they will come away having learned about and connected with these various animals, which makes them passionate about doing their part to help.
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