Of parrots and kinkajous

Lara Kirkendall

Photo By Larry Dalton

Lara Kirkendall, outreach coordinator for the Sacramento Zoo, laughs when asked to describe her typical workday. “When you’re working with kids and animals, everything is a surprise,” she says. Kirkendall and an assortment of animal ambassadors (including parrots, hawks, a bobcat and a kinkajou) spend their days traveling to schools to spread the message of conservation and respect for the variety of life on our animal planet. Recently, Kirkendall and Robbie, the zoo’s eclectus parrot, met with the SN&R to discuss the risks and rewards of life in the Zoomobile. The first topic:

Tell me about Robbie’s infamous escape into Land Park.

We were training him to fly in a show and he just took off. We kept calling him back, but he didn’t want to come. He found a pine tree to eat pine seeds out of. We asked the fire department to help us shoot him out of the tree with their hoses, but he just thought he was getting a bath. He had plenty of food and water and he stayed out for four days. Then a hawk came by and almost got him, but knocked him low enough into a tree that we got a cherry picker to come pick him up. The city’s tree-picker people were so cooperative. We’d call them whenever we thought he got low enough and they’d come right out.

Does Robbie fly in the show now?

No. His wings are permanently clipped. We keep them very, very short. He can’t be trusted.

How did you get started at the Zoo?

I’ll have been here six years in May. I started working in rehab medicine with animals that were injured or orphaned down in San Diego. We would release them into the wild after they’d been nursed back to health. Animals that couldn’t be fixed, we’d take them out to schools to do programs about conservation and the need to protect animals. I thought, “What a great career!” When I was at the San Diego Zoo, I saw the posting for the job up here and it looked like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so here I am.

Where do you travel?

We go anywhere an hour from the Zoo. Down to Stockton, up to Marysville and Yuba City, out toward Fairfield and all the way out to El Dorado. It’s all for schools. We do private groups too, but it has to be an educational setting. It can’t be a fair or an animal booth. It has to be in line with the conservation program that we do. So we do Elks Lodges and senior facilities, pretty much any kind of education facility.

What is the outreach message?

It depends. A lot of our programs are based on the California Science Framework. For the little kids, it’s “these animals are like you.” You have eyes and ears and a nose and they have eyes and ears and a nose. As the kids get older, it’s adaptations. “Why does this animal have to live in this habitat and what happens when it’s not there?” We study the consequences of what happens when an animal is not where it should be. For the older kids, it’s “What you can do?” We try to give the message that it’s not a lost cause. We try to take the edge that we can all live on this planet together. Just reduce, reuse, recycle and do what you can.

Have there been any animal mishaps on your outings?

When you’re doing things live with kids and animals, you can never be sure how things will turn out. We were doing live TV and I had the kinkajou. Kinkajous eat bugs and insects. We had some Madagascar hissing cockroaches from our bug exhibit out, too. So I had the kinkajou and I was talking about her and then I put her away in her kennel and got the bugs out. Well, apparently I didn’t latch the kennel very well or she knows how to escape because I’m live on TV and holding the bugs and I see this movement out of the corner of my eye. I’m thinking, “This cannot be good,” and here’s the kinkajou crawling into my lap. I’m on TV, trying to continue talking, get the kinkajou back in her cage and calmly show off the bug. I’m thinking, “Man, there goes my career.”

What animals make good ambassadors?

Animals that aren’t lethal, number one. Then, animals that aren’t nervous and don’t mind 10 school children coming up to them. Ones that will just hang out and think, “It’s all good.”

Who’s your favorite?

[Points to Robbie.] This one. He’s kind of a brat, not to anthropomorphize him. His behavior is like that of a 2-year-old, which I find very amusing. The other day I was with some school kids and I tried to feed him an almond so I could talk about how he eats with his feet, but he just took it and threw it at me. So there goes my speech for the next two minutes, since he wasn’t eating.

What are the hazards of your work?

You get bit sometimes, and that’s embarrassing to admit because 99 percent of the time you get bit, it’s your fault. You weren’t paying attention. You have to be really on to handle some of these animals, very aware of your surroundings. There are certain ones, like some of the cats, who I won’t take out if I’m feeling sick or tired, because I know I have to be on my game to stay safe.

There’s also the times when you think one thing and say another during a presentation and some intelligent 5-year-old will raise their hand and say, "Excuse me. That’s not true." That can be a hazard.