University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Feathered and furry friends

     Jill Palmer, Delaware '88, has a job that really is "for" the
birds and Beth Schwenk, Delaware '88, has the task of "talking to
the animals"-some even more surprising than those in the Dr.
Doolittle books.
     As keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo, both women spend their
days caring for friends-feathered, furry and otherwise.
     Palmer, a relief keeper in the zoo's main birdhouse, feeds
and waters the birds and observes their behavior, especially
during nesting time. Schwenk, lead keeper in the rare animal
house, spends her days cleaning and disinfecting cages, feeding
her charges up to four or five times, maintaining exhibits and
answering questions for visitors.
     Palmer readily admits to a healthy addiction to fine-
feathered friends. One of those kids who was always bringing home
wounded animals and trying to heal them, she says she "forced
herself" onto the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research facility in
Newark as a volunteer during her days at UD and later convinced
the staff they needed to create a summer internship for her.
     That move led to four years' employment as a supervisor at
Tri-State, one of the premiere such facilities in the country,
before joining the zoo staff.
     Now, Palmer gets to nurture her lifelong interest in
conservation at the same time she cares for the many birds under
her wing.
     She loves, for example, to tell the story of the Micronesian
Kingfisher. Native to Guam, the birds began disappearing when
brown tree snakes slithered off U.S. troop ships in World War II
and ate the birds for dinner. Few remain in the wild and the
birds are difficult to breed in captivity. That the Philadelphia
Zoo has seven, most of them hatched there, is a source of delight
for Palmer.
     Another conservation effort especially important to her is
the annual and dangerous removal of bald eagle chicks from their
parents at the zoo for relocation in the wild in Lancaster
County, Pa.
     "We want them to be wild animals so we release them back
into their natural habitat," she explains. "It takes about eight
of us with nets and gloves to get a chick from its parents.
     "The Fish and Wildlife Service will tell us where they've
spotted a bald eagle's nest, and we'll watch for the chance to
put the new chick in. Birds have such a poor sense of smell that
the new parents won't know the chick is new or that it has been
touched by humans. They'll readily accept it into their nest.
They won't abandon it unless it gives them a lot of harassment."
     Incidentally, Palmer says, that applies to all birds. It's
an old wives' tale that if you see a robin fall from its nest and
return it, the mother will abandon the chick because she can
"smell" the human's touch.
     There are days when Palmer is a relief keeper solely
responsible for diets. In that job, she works closely with the
commissary to make sure deliveries are made on time and with a
nutritionist to make sure each bird is getting the proper food.
At other times, she might be called in to help with the
incubator/brooder job or she may fill in for a keeper at the main
bird house with its special Jungle Bird Walk or at exhibits known
as Bird Valley and Bird Lake.
     Palmer says bird keepers have to keep a professional
distance from the birds, no matter how endearing they may be,
because birds who associate too much with humans fail to breed.
     "We've secretly named a few," she confides. "The boss knows
about some of them."
     One of her personal favorites is the Kea parrot from
southern New Zealand. One of the Keas, named Demetrius, and some
of the Electus parrots intrigue her with their intelligence. And
then, of course, there are the rare Mariana Fruit Doves...the
large collection of water fowl...and the penguins and, oh, don't
forget, the flamingos....
     In yet another part of the Philadelphia Zoo, Beth Schwenk,
lead keeper, has no trouble naming her favorite animal lodged in
the spacious and heavily visited Rare Animal House. The
Spectacled Langur family-leaf-eating monkeys-wins hands down.
     The father of the family, named Nasty, really isn't nasty at
all, Schwenk says, and Kela, the youngest, also is a charmer.
Traditionally hard to keep in captivity, the langurs have been
living at the Philadelphia Zoo for almost l0 years. Seven
offspring, three of which now live in the San Diego Zoo, have
been born in Philadelphia.
     Schwenk is an authority on the Spectacled Langur. She has
written numerous papers on the species and, as the North American
regional studbook keeper for the animal, she is responsible for
tracing the genetic lineage of all the langurs in institutions in
North America.
     Observing the way different animals care for their young,
especially species where the entire family participates, is one
of her specialties.
     She is eagerly anticipating the arrival later this year of
two Duke Langurs from the San Diego Zoo. Philadelphia will become
the third zoo in the country to own a pair. Once they arrive,
they will, Schwenk says, be kept in quarantine for 90 days to
make sure they aren't transporting any disease.
     From childhood, Schwenk knew she wanted to work with
animals. At 13, she started working with horses and, over the
years, worked in a vet's office, in a kennel and on a horse farm.
At UD, she worked for two years at the University farm where she
says she gained valuable experience. In her senior year, she took
a job at the Brandywine Zoo, where she was able to "work
     When a position for a relief keeper became available at the
Philadelphia Zoo, she applied. There, she trained in all areas of
the zoo-caring for everything from lions and tigers to sheep. She
says even when she had to feed tigers and bears, she felt calm.
     "As long as you don't make a mistake, you're fine," she
says. "If you get complacent, you may get into trouble."
     Having rare animals take food from her hand doesn't
fascinate Schwenk as much as it makes sense-what better way to
observe the animals up close or to hide needed medicine and make
sure it gets swallowed.
     "These rare animals," she says, referring to the ones for
which she is responsible, "aren't pet material."
     "For their scent mark, they urinate. They can't be potty
trained; they have to wear diapers. They're not cuddly; they
don't tame down. They're only suited to be wild animals," she
says, emphatically.
     For her part, Schwenk and her husband, Peter, Delaware '89,
are content with the dog and two cats they keep at home.
     To young, would-be zoo keepers, Schwenk has this advice:
"Get an education and find some way to get experience with exotic
animals. Many small zoos may need part-time help, depending on
the season. Just keep pushing and pushing until you get in."
                                                -Beth Thomas