The CZU Lightning Complex wildfires have had a profound impact on the lives of Bay Area residents, especially those who were forced to evacuate. The evacuation orders affected not only people but also their animals, including large animals such as horses, donkeys, and llamas. Our Animal Ambassador, Lee Harper, has spent the past few weeks sheltered in place on the coast, caring for many of these rescued animals - including several alpacas and a camel.  In this newsletter we shine a spotlight on just some of the work our magical ambassador Lee does when she isn't working for the Friends.

Zookeeper Lee and Willy the Camel.  Photo Credit: Miguel Martinez

Do you have a question for Zookeeper Lee?  Let us know by replying to this email, and we will post Lee's responses in our next edition.

Q: Before Covid-19 temporarily closed the JMZ, can you describe your role at the JMZ?

Lee: At the JMZ, I work as a zookeeper, exhibit design/construction/fabrication and also as an Animal Ambassador for The Friends. We have Super Family Sundays, appreciation days for families who have children with physical disabilities and learning differences. There is so much joy in sharing the animals with these families. Everyone blossoms. It is a very positive and liberating experience. We also had a Club JMZ program sponsored by The Friends. This was a little gem. It developed into a place to build core relationships with members, to engage more deeply and grow their animals skills. The members that became involved in this program were able to create their own trust bonds with the animals. We often focused on Behavioral Enrichment. That is a crucial element in animal care. Many of the Club JMZ families continue to send videos and stories about the Behavioral Enrichment they are creating for their own animals at home.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being an Animal Ambassador?

Lee: One of my favorite things is developing a trust bond with animals, children and caregivers. It allows me to safely bring an animal out for the children and caregivers to experience them in a much deeper way. It is a delight to witness the gasp of wonder as they gently stroke the back of our giant tortoise, Edward. I love to share the experience of engaging with families and the animals. I have so missed sharing those moments with our guests.

Q: What makes the JMZ special to you?

Lee: The JMZ is extraordinarily special . We are able to build close relationships with the families. The membership is so devoted and they stay involved. They aren't just looking at these animals, they are knowing these animals. They can "get in the thick of it" and have a one-on-one experience. That is one of the many ways the JMZ so special.

Willy the Camel
Willy the Camel.  Photo Credit: Lee Harper

Q: Now that the fires have impacted so much of the Bay Area, how have you pivoted in your work with animals?

Lee: I have been at the ranch where I live on the Coastside, south of Half Moon Bay. We have been sheltering animals that were evacuated from their homes. I have been volunteering with the San Mateo Large Animal Evacuation Group, an astoundingly resilient and devoted group of people. We received an urgent call that they were working on getting a camel trailered and evacuated from his home. We needed to put up a large camel corral and set-up accommodations in the paddocks and barn stalls for goats, a ram, and two frightened alpaca. We prepared an environment where they could feel safe.

The people who head up the rescue organization are from Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel, and they are the heartbeat of this community. Robin, Laura and Brianna Camozzi head up the organization.These three women are the most amazing and steadfast beings. It is incredible what they are able to accomplish. We are all on standby until at least mid-October. This is only the beginning of the fire season. We continue to build more corrals and places where we can shelter more animals.

Q: What has been the unexpected highlight of this experience for you?

Lee: Years ago I worked with camels. I never dreamed there would be a big, glorious camel in my front yard. William (Willy) the camel is at least 1,000 lb. He is 13 years old. The last time he was trailered and off his property was 8 years ago. This was a startling change in his bucolic life. Slowly I developed a rapport with Willy. You behave in a way that is very predictable for the animals in your care. You gently begin to build trust. I would lay on the ground and mimic Willy's behavior, picking up sticks and grass. He eventually would lay down and pick up sticks and grass with me. Soon he offered his head to be rubbed. It's a sweet, slow groove. From my experience, camels do not do as well with alpha handling behavior. If you are warm and kind around them, there is no need to push them. You are just offering them safety and predictability. That rapport we built was helpful when we had to trailer him for his return trip home.

One of the highlights was to lay down near Willy and listen to the comforting sounds he would make. We were a soothing presence in each other's lives. That was the biggest surprise, I had become a bit sad being away from the children and caregivers I am used to sharing with at the JMZ. When this all happened with Willy, my heart lit up. Willy's presence brought all sorts of neighbors out of nowhere and a sweet camaraderie blossomed in our little rural community. Willy is safe and sound and back with his family now. They missed him so much. We will be visiting him soon. It was a joy to have the opportunity to help Willy.

Willy the Camel and Zookeeper Lee.  Photo Credit: Lee Harper

Q: What excites you most about the new JMZ facility and your re-entry back to work upon reopening?

Lee: People will be in wonder when they see it! It is absolutely magnificent. When I am there and look around, I get this feeling that this is the sort of place that will stay in people's memory for ages after they leave. The impact is so much more than what can be seen with the eye. Your senses feel heightened. The sounds, the water flowing, the colors. Oh and wait until you experience the astounding botanicals! It just feels enchanted there. Edward, the giant tortoise, has a fabulous new enclosure with an elephant foot tree in the middle. A warm cave you can see into. There is even a soaking pond for him. There are infinite opportunities to explore, above and below ground. The children will be able to climb into caves and see the animals in their night quarters resting. You get to be with them in their quiet places, and in their burrows. You can go up in the treehouse and see everything from a birds eye view. My favorite part of the whole experience is that it is ALL ACCESS. Everyone can enjoy the experience and share the wonder. There are places to unload out of your wheelchair and you can climb down inside caves and burrows. You can take an elevator to see areas of the JMZ from above. You have all sorts of ways to experience the Junior Museum and Zoo. It will be a welcoming environment for all abilities.

Interview taken on September 2, 2020
Read more about the Bay Area Animal Evacuations HERE.

Willy the Camel and Zookeeper Lee.  Photo Credit: Miguel Martinez