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Twin 11-year-olds get to be zookeepers for a day

Connor Riley holds Amarillo the screech owl inside the Children’s Zoo. He and his twin brother Jake, both 11, spent a day as keepers at the St. Louis Zoo.
Connor Riley holds Amarillo the screech owl inside the Children’s Zoo. He and his twin brother Jake, both 11, spent a day as keepers at the St. Louis Zoo. News-Democrat

Handling Mort the python and letting Amarillo the owl perch on their fingers were some of the best parts of the day.

Cleaning the smelly goat barn, not so much.

Jake and Connor Riley, 11-year-old twins from Millstadt, like the outdoors and animals. On May 2, they got a unique chance to work with creatures at the St. Louis Zoo that were a bit more exotic than the ones in their back yard.

“We have wood snakes at home,” said Connor as he held the python in his lap. Once, he and his brother found one and decided to keep it.

“Mom was not excited about the snake in the box,” Connor explained, both brothers grinning.

But Carey and Mike Riley were excited for their adventurous sons when an aunt and uncle gave them a very special Christmas present: the chance to be Keepers-for-a-Day at the Children’s Zoo.

They arrived at 8:30 a.m. for orientation, donned tan shirts with triangular Zoo patches on the arm and pinned on their official nametags. (They had to return the shirts, but got to keep the tags.)

Keepers Sarah Kacharski and Gary Morris showed the boys the ropes, from what kind of food to fix for the animals to which way to safely stroke a python. (Toward its head.)

They ran the gamut of animal-related activites from morning until about 2 p.m., with a stop for a lunch. Then they mingled with visitors while holding wild animals.

Here is a look at some of the highlights of their day, which included a lot of hand-washing.

So, what’s in your kitchen?

10 a.m.: A crowd watched from behind a big glass window as Jake and Connor shredded lettuce, selected fruit and veggies, then measured and weighed it in individual bowls for the various Children’s Zoo animals.

“Do you know why we do this?” asked Sarah, the Kitchen Keeper.

Connor: “So they don’t get fat.”

Gary: “It’s so they get a balanced meal, too.”

Sarah explained that the animals had varied feeding schedules, some just once day and others more. It made the kitchen a busy place, with several keepers reading ingredients out of books propped by their stations.

“The river otter is fed four times a day,” she told them.

The boys, though diligent, were itching to do more.

“Do you do this at home?” Sarah asked about helping out in the kitchen.

Jake: “No.”

Connor: “Does feeding the dog count?”

While Connor kept working with the food bowls and scale, Jake and Sarah moved to an adjoining room. A big box fan was propped up on a cabinet, helping thaw out frozen carcasses of birds and mice that would be meals for the predator birds and snakes.

Jake: “Can I touch them?”

Sara said OK and explained that while predators prefer to eat live animals, these were put to sleep before being frozen. Then they are thawed when needed.

“The animals prefer to eat them thawed out. You wouldn’t want to eat frozen food would you?”

Jake shook his head, then picked up a bird. “They’re squishy.”

Back in the kitchen area, both boys inspected the freezer, which was packed with bags of frozen rats, chicks and mice.

Connor: “Whoa! Cool!”

They took a couple bowls of food and moved into areas of the Children’s Zoo not seen by visitors and fed a pair of rabbits. They are some of the animals brought out by volunteers for petting.

They learned an important keeper lesson, too.

“Always check the cages,” Gary said as they relocked after a feeding, pulling on the cage door to make sure it was secure. “We don’t want any escapes.”

Time to clean house

11 a.m.: Dazzle and Glitter were waiting. The two goats peered from their outdoor enclosure as Jake, Connor, Gary and Sarah walked into the barn area out of sight of visitors.

“This is the super-secret keeper entrance,” Sarah said with a smile. It had involved winding through rear doors, walking past cages, then cutting through a sloped wooded area restricted to Zoo employees.

Inside the enclosure, Dazzle and Glitter got lots of petting and hugs from the twins.

That was the fun part.

Then, it was off to work inside the stalls. Both boys scrunched up their faces at the strong smell of amonia.

“So, we clean these every day,” Sarah said, handing out wide push brooms. It’s all part of being a zookeeper.

“What’s that on the floor?” Jake asked.

Sarah wasn’t sure, but she had an idea. “In the zoo, everything is poop.”

What followed was pushing the soiled straw to the back of each stall, then switching to shovels, lifting and filling waste barrels.

“Can we get a vacuum?” inquired Connor as he worked.

“Well, you can donate a super goat-cleaning vacuum,” joked Sarah.

After their labor, followed by hand-washing, Connor had a serious question: “What are we eating for lunch?”

Sarah: “Some of those frozen mice?”

They compromised: Two orders of chicken strips and fries on the terrace of the Painted Giraffe Cafe. And a big brownie (Connor) and a giant chocolate-chip cookie (Jake).

On the walk to the cafe, Sarah told them she used to work at a wolf sanctuary and showed them a scar on her arm where she was bitten.

“I’m a werewolf!” she cried in mock horror.

Connor looked at his brother: “Now’s our chance to run!”

1:30 p.m.: Back at the Children’s Zoo, the four zookeepers stood in a tight circle as Gary and Sarah showed Jake, who had donned a big leather glove, how to hold his hand so Amarillo the screech owl would feel comfortable with him.

“You are in control, so be calm,” said Sarah as she and Gary checked the leather thongs strapped to Amarillo and to Jakes’s hand.

Jake’s eyes got big, but he held steady as they walked down the hallway that led to the indoor area of the Children’s Zoo.

The brothers had been given lessons on both the owl and the python and practiced answering questions.

With a little prompting, Jake told visitors who gathered around him that screech owls come in two colors, gray and reddish brown.

“They can turn their head 270 degrees,” he added.

Later, when Connor sat with the 5-foot-long ball python on his lap, boys and girls came up and watched carefully. Sarah and Gary stayed close by.

The boys took turns petting Mort, who is 15 or 16 years old.

“He’s called a ball python because he rolls up in a ball,” Gary told them.

“You can touch him,” Connor told a girl, who hesitated.

Then both brothers assumed a zookeeper attitude:

“Just make sure you pet him this way, towards his head,” said Jake.

“Like this,” showed Connor.

The girl tried it and jumped. Then tried again, smiling.

The boys grinned and nodded.

Meet Jake and Connor Riley

Age: 11; fraternal twins. Connor is one minute older.

Home: Millstadt

School: Queen of Peace in Belleville. They will be in sixth grade in the fall.

Parents: Carey and Mike. She’s a teacher and he’s a physical therapist.

Sibling: Sister Ella, 5

When I grow up: “I just want to be someone who walks around with animals,” said Connor. “Maybe a TV show.”

“I want to take stray animals to my house and take care of them,” said Jake.

Favorite class: Science

Favorite TV shows: “Lab Rats” and “Kickin’ It”

Favorite meal: Grandma’s breakfast of eggs, toast and bacon on weekends

Books reading now: “The Blood of Olympus” for Connor and a “Goosebumps” book for Jake

Best vacation: Toss-up between Mexico and swimming with the dolphins at Disney World.

Sports: Swimming and golf. “He likes golf better,” Connor said. “I like swimming.”

Keeper-for-a-Day

For: Students in grades 2-8

What you’ll do: You will work in an animal room or barn with a keeper and learn to handle a small mammal, bird or reptile and then present the animal to Children's Zoo visitors. You will join the keepers for staff meeting, break time and lunch. A Saint Louis Zoo nametag, snack and lunch will be provided.

Offered: 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily May 25 to Aug. 9 (except June 19, July 2, 3, 4); limited to 4 participants per day. From Aug. 10 to Sept. 7 daily. Limited to 2 participants per day.

Cost: $145, Zoo member; $155, general public

Register: Online at stlzoo.org. Go to education, then programs for individuals and families, then keeper-for-a-day.

Information: Education Department, 314-646-4544, option 6.

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