In high school, Benboe got a job as an intern working with Zoo Atlanta’s birds and reptiles. He kept applying for jobs as they came open so he’s worked with birds, small mammals, amphibians, primates, large mammals, rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and zebras. And now, elephants.
“Most keepers stay in one area. I always wanted to work in different areas and become good in all areas,” he says.
The primary objective for Benboe and all other zookeepers is to ensure the physical and emotional health and quality of life for the animals they are watching over.
“We are the first eyes and ears,” he says. “We are the first to notice their diet, if they are suffering from boredom. Animals cannot really communicate when they are sick. And with wild animals, they only show they are sick when it is too late.”
Keepers must observe each animal for long periods of time. Part of that is to train the animals to participate in their own captive management, Benboe says.
Through building trust and training techniques, zookeepers can train animals to walk themselves into their own enclosures for a medical exam or roll over to their side for an ultrasound, Benboe explains.
The two female elephants Benboe works with are Tara and Kelly. They are both 30 and weigh an average 8,000 pounds. They were orphans before coming to Zoo Atlanta in the mid-1980s.
Exercising them regularly is important because they do not walk 25 miles a day like they would in the wild. The elephants also love to paint with brushes or by blowing colors out of their trunks, Benboe says.
“Between all that fun stuff, we are picking up lots of poop. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of poop a day,” he says. All of it goes to compost.
The elephants definitely have their own personalities, Benboe says. Kelly is “outgoing, a ham, and loves doing anything with the public. She’s like a diva. She wants people to be paying attention to her.”
Tara, however, is quite happy being alone. And while Tara is the larger of the two, Kelly is the dominant one.
Being a zookeeper is a lot of physical work, but Benboe loves it because, as he likes to say, he’s the only gay guy in Atlanta who doesn’t need a gym membership. And Zoo Atlanta is actually filled with many LGBT employees, he added.
He’s been working with Tara and Kelly for six months, and knows how intelligent they are.
“The best experience for me right now is being a student to elephants. They are training me on how to train them,” he says.
By Dyana Bagby
Photo: Daniel Benboe, a zoo keeper at Zoo Atlanta, hangs out with some of his ring-tailed lemur friends. (Photo courtesy Zoo Atlanta)
Mobile vet: ‘My love is my profession’
Dr. M.G. McReynolds, a mobile veterinarian, has been treating animals in and around Atlanta since 1986, fulfilling a calling she said she’s had since she was a child.
Growing up on a farm with a dad who was a cattle breeder, McReynolds said she had a “rich childhood” filled with all kinds of animals who were part of the family.
“I was always interested in science and medicine, so it was a natural segue to go into veterinary medicine — much to my parents’ chagrin,” she says. “They asked are you sure you don’t want to be a real doctor.”
But McReynolds, who is gay, knows she made the right decision.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I’m one of the few people I know who my love is my profession. It’s a real privilege.”
On her family’s farm, McReynolds said only dogs were allowed to stay inside the house while the cats fended for themselves outside and in the barn.
“I was more of a dog person when growing up because the cats we had were very aloof and not allowed in the house. When I went to vet school and started having pets in the house, I became more aware of the feline species,” she says.
In the early 1990s, she worked at an all-cat clinic and discovered she preferred working with cats.
“Not that I don’t love dogs, but I prefer working on cats. We speak to each other more, in a non-verbal way. They just know I’m in charge and I’m there to help,” she says.
McReynolds is currently living with her daughter and they have three cats and one dog between them. One thing she believes all people need to learn before rushing out to get a cute kitten or puppy is that you are entering into a long-term commitment — sometimes up to 18 years or longer.
McReynolds also has three rules she likes to let cat owners know: don’t declaw your pet, spay or neuter your cats by the time they are six months old, and start early on behavioral intervention so cats will not tear up your expensive furniture.
As a mobile vet, McReynolds also offers euthanasia for pets in the comfort of their homes through her business, Transitions Home Euthanasia (http://transitionshomeeuthanasia.com)
“When I first started this, it was a process every time,” she says.
“Sometimes I turned people down. But the more you do it, the more you realize it is a gift to these animals to end their suffering,” McReynolds adds. “Let your animals die with dignity. Don’t prolong their lives for us.”
But there is plenty of happiness, too. When a family gets a new kitten, McReynolds says she enjoys watching the animal grow up to be part of the family.
“But I totally adore all that I do,” she notes.
And as for her parents — “They are very happy for me,” she says.
By Dyana Bagby
Pit bull rescuer: ‘Continue to educate and not judge’
Nehemiah Falber is 19, works two part-time jobs and attends Georgia Gwinnett College. He also has a boyfriend.
So, he’s pretty busy. But not busy enough to keep him from working to rescue animals.
Falber volunteers every weekend with his mother at local animal shelters to walk dogs and clean out their pens and helped create an organization, Stubby’s Heroes, to rescue dogs, especially pit bulls.
Stubby’s Heroes was founded last year by his mom, Johanna Falber, and Lizz Dorsey, who also is a DJ at many lesbian parties. The group works to eliminate breed specific legislation that targets dogs such as pit bulls. The goal of Stubby’s Heroes is also to educate policy makers and the public that certain breeds aren’t dangerous — it’s the people who raise them that make them dangerous.
It was six years ago when Falber moved with his mom from Long Island to metro Atlanta. They went to a Kroger where there was a woman with a box full of puppies.
“She told us if she didn’t get rid of them she was going to have to take them to the shelter. So we picked one out and named him Charlie, a golden retriever/springer spaniel mix. We thought he was going to be small but now he weighs 140 pounds,” Falber says.
That was their first rescue.
After that, his mother began researching more about dogs, especially about dog pounds and animal cruelty.
“I was like 13 or 14 and since then we started going to shelters every weekend to walk the dogs and help care for them,” he said.
They also started volunteering with the Coalition to Unchain Dogs and held the first Bully March last October in Piedmont Park to show the public what a gentle, loving breed the pit bull can be.
Falber and his mother now have three pit bull mixes as well as Charlie and a cat.
“I do have a love for animals. Pit bulls are so popular with dog kennels especially in kennels in Atlanta. I feel they are very neglected. There is this bad connotation about them — that they are naturally evil. That’s just not true,” he says. “It’s the way we raise them.”
Falber says it can become depressing when they are not able to rescue an animal and it has to be euthanized. But the key is to keep your eye on the bigger picture, he says.
“I try to keep my emotions out of it. Once you put you emotions in it, it becomes more about you and less about the dog,” he says.
“Of course I do get sensitive when I learn about a dog being put down. But who else will do this if we don’t?” he asks.
Stubby’s Heroes is named after Sgt. Stubby, who was believed to be a pit bull mix and was the most decorated dog during World War I.
“To think this awarded war veteran would be outlawed now is a shame,” Falber said. “We are going to continue to educate and not judge.”
By Dyana Bagby
Pet cremation provider: ‘I love my pets so it just made sense’
When Christine Hunsaker and her partner, Kellie Rowker, lost a pet, their experience didn’t go well. Having a background in the funeral business, Hunsaker saw a need for grieving pet-owners to have the same compassionate care for their deceased pet as for a human family member or friend.
“When our little dog Casey died, we had a terrible experience,” Hunsaker said. “I thought, ‘I run a cremation company that handles thousands and thousands of human beings. Why can’t I start a similar business that treats the pets nice and the people nice?’ I knew the human side really well and I love my pets so it just made sense to me. ”
In 2005, she opened the doors of Paws, Whiskers & Wags. Hunsaker built the business on being totally open and transparent.
“Anyone, anywhere at any time can come here and be there through the whole process,” she says. “The number one thing that anyone wants to know when they lose a two-legged or a four-legged loved one is where you take their loved ones and can they go there.
“They want to know that when they get their pet back, this is really their pet. At our place, they can see the process from start to finish,” she says.
One of their clients, Alyssa Easton, said that this fact alone is why she chose to have her pet cremated at Paws, Whiskers & Wags.
“My dog, Tennessee, had a tragic death. I was heartbroken and trying to find a place to have her cremated. There was no place that would guarantee that I would get her specific ashes. Christine allowed me to accompany my dog through the whole process and I knew I had the remains of my dog. It was so comforting,” Easton says.
When dealing with the loss of a loved one, Paws, Whiskers & Wags also knows that people don’t stop hurting right away. For this reason, they offer a grief counseling group that meets on the first Tuesday of each month. It is led by a therapist and is free to anyone who they have served or their extended family.
Each year, they also have a “Celebration of the Pets” gathering where pet owners come to commemorate the loss of their loved one. It’s held at the DeKalb County Auditorium. People submit photos of their pets which are displayed on the big screen. Then, there is a candlelight vigil.
“All the seats are filled and its standing room only,” Hunsaker says.
She relates a story of how she helped a special client who worried how his young twin daughters would deal with the death of the family’s dog.
“I told him that the important thing was that they learn about loss and grief and how to manage it,” Hunsaker recalls. “The next day, he brought the girls in with love letters to the dog. He held them up, one in each arm, and showed them through the operations window our cremation machine. …
He said, ‘Well this lady is going to put our dog in there and that machine is going to carry her really fast up to Heaven. We’re going to get ice cream and when we come back, we will be able to see the angel dust left behind that will let us know that she made it to Heaven. ’
“He found a way to let them know that everything was going to be okay. ”
by Shannon Hames
Photo: Christine Hunsaker (left) founded Paws, Whiskers & Wags after she and her partner, Kelly Rowker, lost a beloved dog. (courtesy)