Read. Return. Repeat.

A ReadICT podcast
Todd Volkmann

Season 1, Episode 3: Birds of a Feather

Todd Volkmann, exhibit caretaker at the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit, joins Sara to discuss books about animals, some of the history of and animals at the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit, and more.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription. Some errors may occur. If you find a transcription error, please contact us with any corrections and we will make those corrections as quickly as possible.


SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Hello and welcome to episode 3 of Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. I'm your host Sara McNeil, adult programming librarian for the Wichita Public Library. In today's episode titled "Birds of a Feather," we will explore category 3: a book about animals or pets with Todd Volkmann. Todd is the exhibit caretaker at the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit in Riverside Central Park and oversees the care of animals native to Kansas including but not limited to waterfowl, birds of prey, turtles, a skunk, a beaver, and a bobcat. Todd, thank you for joining us today and welcome to the show.

TODD VOLKMANN: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me to be here.

SARA: Oh, my pleasure. I've seen you around town and so I thought this would be a perfect segue for us to introduce our listeners to native animals in Kansas and then also draw those comparisons with books and literature that... that are relevant to the category. So we'll just jump right in. I'm going to ask you some questions and then here later we're going to have an animal ambassador visit us so I'll let you give the introduction to that friend. But could you tell our listeners what interested you in working with animals, like was there a lifelong passion or did you have a pivotal experience that sparked that interest?

TODD: Well, it started pretty young. Like a lot of people, I had an interest in... in animals as a kid. Most most children's books involve animals. They gravitate towards pets and I loved going to the zoo. My... as a kid, I did have a few unique animal experiences, my father being a biology and zoology teacher. My home life had a lot... it's basically a zoo itself. The basement had quite a few exotic animals in addition to the normal dog and cat.

SARA: For sure. Oh man. Go ahead.

TODD: Well, in a lot of additional experiences growing up, like some of my favorite things to do were to find nature anywhere. That included suburbia. I mean, I loved camping out in the middle of nowhere but I also enjoyed, you know, looking under a brick or a rock and just trying to find something that's out there.

SARA: Yeah, my... I have a daughter who's 10 and when she was really little, you know, we started her off with gardening but then we would always find these "pests," right, that are in the garden. And so instead of like exterminating the pests, I encouraged her to collect them and study them. And so we started with the swallowtails because they were notorious for eating our parsley and our broccoli and all of those kind of plants and then... and so then we had a little bug carrier, you know, that you could dump them in and put food in there and one thing I found was really fascinating is that we would collect them all the way through the fall and then sometimes they would stay in that carrier over the winter and then we would be enchanted with this butterfly that would come out in the springtime like we had completely forgotten about it and I didn't realize that they could do that.

TODD: Insects are sneaky that way. We kind of forget about them in the fall and like what do they do during the winter? There's... there's a pause. I mean, they're... they're waiting and they will re-emerge and they've started to do that already.

SARA: Oh yeah. Yeah, I can hear the birds chirping before dawn and I know they're just out hunting and I try not to get like frustrated because it's like oh, I don't have to put bird food out, like they're actually doing their own hunting. But it is, yeah, we don't think about that, you know. If we don't see it, we... we automatically assume that they're gone.

TODD: They're out there, they're waiting. There's all... I mean a lot of animals we're familiar with hibernation. With insects we... that usually doesn't get a lot of press but young insects, I mean if you think about mosquitoes in the water, there's larvae that are... they're in the dirt.I guess most people are familiar with cicadas that are, I mean, waiting underground but yeah, they just wait for the right time to re-emerge.

SARA: Yeah or you know maybe they have these different incantations where they start off as one thing and then they just evolve into these other critters and it's... you might not know all the different phases that you... that they're in.

TODD: Insects are known for that too. Yeah, there's a... there's a big difference between larval insects and the... and the adult form. Most of them try to stay young as long as possible. Adult insects tend to not live that long but that's what we recognize are the the butterflies and the beetles and things like that.

SARA: Yeah, we were... we were listening to this podcast the other day and it was talking about how butterflies like to suck the salt off of turtle eyeballs and it... it was so weird but it was just like why would they do that? And it's to ensure their survival because they carry those salt enzymes with them when they mate and so it's attractive to their... to their partner who you know...

TODD: Turtle tears are so sweet.

SARA: I know, right? Like there needs to be an emo song about turtle tears.


Well, that's really fascinating. It does speak to how influential the people around you are at cultivating those interests when you're a child.

TODD: Definitely. Well, and it continued on, I never really thought of it as a... as a career path so later on in life, probably the first step towards me being here right now started with volunteering at the Great Plains Nature Center. The wildlife exhibit is a partnership between the the nature center and the City of Wichita and I just kind of wanted to be around nature again and that's a great place to do that in town. And yeah, years ago I started volunteering there, taking care of birds and other animals, helping out with events and the occasional program and it progressed. I mean, I eventually took a part-time job there and was recently a naturalist there and before I came here. So yep, that's kind of how I ended up here right now.

SARA: I really love that the... well, your exhibit is free and open to the public 24 hours a day, you know, 365 days a year. Great Plains Nature Center is almost the same where you don't... you can just wander and find nature at your leisure so that's really appealing to folks that might have difficult schedules or you know, not a whole lot of time to explore the zoo but they can go and find like natural nature.

TODD: Yeah. Free is a good sales pitch and it's... it's been a historical part of the wildlife exhibit and yeah, it's a wonderful part of the nature center as well. And that includes free programs that schools and organizations want to utilize.

SARA: Yeah, definitely. So this episode mirrors category three for ReadICT which is about either animals or pets and we leave that up to the the listeners or the participants, but were there any books about animals that you can recommend to our listeners just to inspire?

TODD: Yeah, I have one that immediately came to mind and I'm gonna share but before I do, I'm gonna... I'm gonna take a little stroll to get there. So growing up... I thought of a couple books just right off the top of my head growing up. Animal books just seemed to be something I'd gravitate towards like Call of the Wild, White Fang, Where the Red Fern Grows, a lot of dog books. I think as a kid I really enjoyed that, not only just the nature aspect but just, you know, having your pet or an animal and you're kind of out in the wild and around nature. And thinking about it, I also went to go see if I still had these books so I think I appreciate that, thank you. And I revisited some blasts from the past that I haven't read in a long time.

But I also started to think about all the other books when I was that age like elementary school, middle school, just young adult, a lot of those books did -- do include animals. And the more I thought about it, I realized I had to think a while as an adult the last book I read that had an animal-centric focus and it took me a while to to go back and find one. So I'll bring up that book again shortly but going back even further, I'm going into a u-turn: kids books, you're hard-pressed to find one that doesn't have animals or wildlife. I mean, they're usually very central to the... to the story and they're talking... often just kind of take the places of people. And the adult book that I thought of and that I really did enjoy reading was the Life of Pi.

So the the zoo focus at the beginning I enjoyed and his biology teacher I greatly appreciated. That wasn't included in... in the movie if people are familiar with that but if you read it, it does touch a lot more with like the ethics of zoos, animal care, and just animal nature in general and that was something I gravitated towards. The book as a whole I did like but at the end when basically they say that it's almost human nature to appreciate a story with animals in it than without and given the choice you... I mean, you almost want to hear that story that does include nature in it.

That being said, the book that really just stood out and I'm going to share has to do with this place that I'm sitting in right now. So this used to be the Wichita Zoo and this book is called I'll Trade You an Elk and I love this book and I love this building I'm sitting in. This is my dream job, I love it here and this book is the... it takes place during the Depression era back when this was the Wichita Zoo. And again it was a free experience, it was a very important part of the city. Public... public places still are but Central Riverside Park was really where everyone would congregate. There was a lot going on here. It was also the site of like the Wichita pool where the tennis courts are now. But yeah, people would... they even had a race track for horses back when the park first first opened so that there's there's been a lot of changes here. But yeah, that... so the caretaker of that zoo during the Depression era, his kid ended up writing this story a couple decades later and it is... it's a fun read even if you're not endeared to the place like I am. It was a popular book. Disney even made a movie out of it in... in the '70s. It wasn't... didn't take place in Wichita but they drew upon that book to... to create it. And again it was a free experience. There were all kinds of shenanigans that took place. I would be fired if I did a lot of the things that they did in that book, but...

SARA: It was a different time.

TODD: It was a different time. And I mean zoos back then... I mean if you look at old zoo pictures, really they were just about showing people animals that were exotic and that was it. Not a lot of attention was given... given to care. A lot of these animals were... I mean, they came from dire situations and they were exotic. They used to be people's pets and the reason it's called I'll Trade You an Elk would be centered around that there's a lot of animal swapping like hey, we have some elk, we'll trade you for that young black bear and it just progressed from there to the point where it was a pretty exotic zoo. And it... it's a lot of fun. And I like to feel like I'm a part of that now and hopefully we can add to it in the future.

SARA: Definitely. I've seen on our... our Facebook page -- we have a Facebook page for this reading challenge -- several people have bought that book on Amazon and have recommended it to other people wanting to learn not only about local history because that's another category we have but then also --

TODD: Yeah. Yeah, you'll recognize some of the names of... of the people in the book, yeah.

SARA: That's fascinating. Yeah, we... we used to go to Riverside Park a lot before my daughter was in school and almost daily and that was the way for me to get her out of the park was to go visit the animals because she didn't want to leave the playground. So I was like, well, let's go see what so-and-so is up to today you know because it's on the outskirts of the park and then just segue on our ride or walk or whatever. But yeah, it's... it's amazing and I still to this day will go in and just check in on my friends, you know? I mean...

TODD: Appreciate that.

SARA: Mm-hmm. I love it.

Well hey, we're gonna take a quick break. When we come back, we'll be talking with our in-house caretaker Todd and we'll be learning more about education as a facility for the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit. Stay tuned.

Commercial break

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SARA: Welcome back to the show. We're here with Todd Volkmann and we've been talking about his passion for animals and working with native species here in Kansas. So before the break, we talked a lot about your exhibit here in Kansas at the Central Riverside Park and there's a long history of animals residing in the park. Can you tell us when the actual Kansas Wildlife Exhibit was created? I know before it was a zoo but when did that transition happen or transpire?

TODD: The current facility, the grand opening was Halloween of 1988 so it's... it's been around for a little over 30 years.

SARA: Wow.

TODD: Now that... that is a change from the past because all the current animals are native to Kansas. They also have sad stories attached to them for the most part. That's something I usually bring up rather quickly is that if an animal is here, it's considered not to be able to be released in the wild. There's a few exceptions to that but if you look closely, you can even tell some of the birds obviously have flight issues. Sight and flight issues are pretty common with with the birds here. Being imprinted is also an issue. Like for example with the bobcat, animals that are used to being around people don't make good candidates to to be released.

SARA: Yeah, definitely. I could see that, like especially from infancy or a young age if they are imprinted like you said, that would be a challenge to get them to cohabitate or go... go back to the wild.

TODD: Yeah, a bobcat being used to people would potentially be an issue. And it's really it's not just animal... animals like that. Even raptors that are that have been captive and are used to being fed a mouse by a person and not really hunting, if they associate people with food, that can that can be pretty dangerous.

SARA: Yeah, I didn't think about that. You know, in addition to the park there's a lot of wildlife around Riverside and you do see people leave out food for them or feed the geese or you know... we don't think about those consequences in the moment when we're just like oh, this animal's hungry, I want to answer that. But it could really devastate the populations just by imprinting on them at a young age.

TODD: Yeah. I mean, some of the cases were well intentioned. We might talk about that in...

SARA: A little later?

TODD: How much you want to address that? But yeah, I mean it's not just injuries. There... there are well-intentioned cases of people trying to care for an animal. Young animals, almost any animal when it's a baby is relatively easy to to care for and control is is a big part. When animals mature -- I'm just gonna use the example of raccoons -- it's... it's a different animal. And most exhibits in zoos are well designed to deal with adult animals but homes are not in addition to, you know, legal issues with doing things like that.

SARA: No, you're... yeah, that that speaks to a lot because we... you know, we see these animals when they're babies and they're just so endearing and then we forget just like children they turn into teenagers and then they turn into adults and they become vicious back.

TODD: Yeah.

SARA: Left unchecked. That's really interesting.

Well, so you give in-house and outreach presentations on the animal residents at Kansas Wildlife Exhibit. What type of ambassadors do you care for in this exciting exhibit and how are they vetted?

TODD: So I've... I've been the caretaker for a little over a year and in that time I've only... well, I've brought quite a few turtles that I personally had that are now part of the exhibit. The only thing I've added is another turtle that... that came from the Sedgwick County Zoo that I've recently kind of shown. She spent the winter here kind of out of sight under... underwater just waiting for it to warm up. And she'll start to come out during feeding time... feeding times. But if an animal ends up at the wildlife exhibit, it's... it's a commitment. And a lot of these animals, especially in captivity, do have pretty long lifespans.

These... these raptors that are injured and wouldn't survive in the wild can live well over 20 years in captivity. One of the hawks is over 20, the turkey -- Chuck the turkey vulture, he's about 27. And I mean they will be around for a while. Going forward, any animal that comes here will ideally also be used for education purposes. Some of the animals here you'll notice that we engage with a lot more or a lot easier than we do with others, some of the the raptors that have been here haven't been worked with. They've been injured as adults and really they just... they're more of a display bird that it's a place for them to live. If they didn't... if they weren't here, they probably would have been euthanized from... rather than be released just to suffer.

But yeah, it's... I mean we have ideas for what we'd like to do here but really it's... it's not a lot of a lot of changes that... that happened especially in the outdoor exhibit because again, once an animal's here, it's... it's home and they're they're not going to be released.

Now, behind me there's a mural. I am sitting inside what will be in part of an indoor exhibit which I am very excited about. This mural was just finished a couple days ago. There's there's Chappa the beaver, there's Rufus the bobcat, Chuck the vulture is vulturing on my head right now. Probably the... the three most favorite animals that are... that are here at the exhibit. And the indoor exhibit will have a lot of creepy crawly things, temporary guests like insects and spiders and things like that that I'll come across in the spring and the summer. And it'll kind of be a way to supplement things outside especially in the afternoon when like Rufus and Chappa and other animals just you're not going to see. If you show up on an afternoon, even if it's a beautiful day, a lot of these animals just stick to their routine and it's nap time after lunch. And you know, Rufus is a cat, he does what he wants and it's usually taking a nap in the afternoon. So it'll be another chance to... to experience something at the wildlife exhibit in this indoor exhibit and I'm really excited about that so stay tuned for that.

SARA: Yeah, that is really good. Yeah, that's really exciting. I remember ever at Exploration Place they used to have something similar to that a few years back, but the last time that I went in, I didn't see any reptiles, I didn't see any... any animals at all and so I was kind of like aw, you know, that... that was a missed opportunity so it's so nice that it's... that sort of mission is transitioning over to Riverside and that you guys will have those animals on display, you know?

TODD: And it's free.

SARA: And it's free, yeah. And then you can, you know, build that relationship with that animal. You don't have to be scared of it if you see a garter snake or you know.

TODD: I'm glad you brought that up. I am rather endeared to the animals that have a lot of misconceptions about them, the eight-legged and no-legged ones especially. But yeah, I try to work on that.

SARA: Well, and that's part of your mission, right, is educating the public and so then that way they can build that... their own relationship with that animal and not fear. Because a lot of times it's just fear that prevents us from exploring or understanding.

TODD: Exactly, yes. Snakes don't have the best reputation early on, early on in life. Usually associated with a scream from an adult or cartoons and movies that they're not portrayed very well.

SARA: I remember when I briefly worked at Exploration Place and the animal caretaker there let me hold a racer, one of the black racers and I was terrified because she told me, oh, he might bite you and I was like, "Oh, why are you telling me this while I'm holding it?!" But it didn't and I was fine and it helped me kind of get over that so when I do run into snakes in my own garden I think, okay, this... I'm obviously a hundred times bigger than this animal and they're looking for their own food, they're not trying to get in my way. If anything, they're trying to get out of my way so that was really helpful for me. I don't encourage all our listeners to hold snakes if you're squeamish but bear that in mind that they're not out to get you.

TODD: You're welcome to visit the wildlife exhibit and we can we can work on that if you want to.

SARA: Definitely, yeah. Baby steps. Or you know, slithers.


So you've got someone special with you here today.

TODD: I do.

SARA: Would you mind introducing who the animal ambassador is?

TODD: Yeah, this will take just a second --

SARA: Okay, take your time.

TODD: -- while I put on a glove. I'm going to introduce Odin the... the screech owl.

SARA: And for our listeners, the screech owl is relatively small. It's not one of the bigger owls that... that's in the exhibit but darling. So if you are curious to see what he looks like, you can stream the YouTube video of this podcast at the Library's YouTube channel.

How beautiful. Oh my.

Todd Volkmann with Odin the screech owl

TODD: Okay, there we go. So Odin is a full-size screech owl and like you said, he's not a baby screech owl. Usually if you think of an owl, what comes to mind is like a great horned owl or a barn owl or something like that. Screech owls are... they're here year round. They're absolutely in the Riverside area, this is a good habitat for them. You've probably heard them. They're very difficult to see. So odin is a red version of a screech owl which isn't as common in the area. Even though they are predatory, they... they like to blend into whatever tree that they're hanging out in so most of them are kind of a grayish brown and they're very difficult to see in addition to... they like cavities so they might just be completely out of sight but even if they're hanging out on a... on a tree, they... you might just not be able to find them. There's some really good picture... camouflage pictures of screech owls blending into whatever they're... wherever they're hanging out.

So Odin is missing an eye. It's also why he's called Odin. And he was struck by a car. We're pretty sure he was not quite a year old when that happened. When he ended up at the Great Plains Nature Center, he did still have that eye intact and it just became necrotic and eventually it was removed after a few weeks. So that is why he ended up in... in captivity. He has been at the... the wildlife exhibit for about half a year. He was... he was in the lobby at the Great Plains Nature Center. I'm not really sure how well he he liked being in the lobby so he... he's joining us here at the wildlife exhibit. He loved being outdoors so much that I never saw him during the day but I know he was there. I worked with him a little bit and he's been inside for the past month. And yeah, he probably appreciated being inside during that cold spell. He'll probably be back outside here in a couple months when it's... when it's nicer.

SARA: Does he cohabitate with the other owls or...? Because I know some of the animals... the raptors are all kind of in enclosures together.

TODD: Yeah, that's... it's kind of a delicate balance. The... the hawks and the... the large hawks and the turkey vulture do cohabitate and they get along pretty well. The... another large exhibit just has... there's there's a single great horned owl in it. They they do not make good roommates. Great horned owls are just an amazing predator. They would... I mean they will hunt birds of prey at night when they're susceptible. I mean, hawks can't really deal with the night if they're just like roosting on a perch or branch, they can be picked off by an owl relatively easily.

Screech owls, they could probably stay in with the ducks like with that little kestrel and it would be fine in there. You'd never see it because it would just be hiding all day. But Odin is being worked with so he can go out on programs to schools when we can do that hopefully at some point and into events and he's gonna be one of the ambassador animals that we can do engagements with. So the other owl would probably eat him. That's one of the reasons that they do rely on camouflage, a lot of owls do but especially screech owls, they like to be able to hide.

SARA: He's beautiful.

TODD: Yeah.

SARA: I've only seen one screech owl that I can recall ever and it was adjacent to my kid's school. There was a house that had a tree in it and there was like a couple, both of the owls and so the children actually saw it because they saw something moving and then brought it to everyone else's attention. We used to have a barred owl that would roost in one of our trees.

TODD: Yeah, that's... that's another year-round resident. They're fun to listen to.

SARA: We called him Mr. B because of Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin story. You know, he like ripped the tail off the squirrel. But he... I think we were causing too much racket. We ended up using one of the trees to make a tree house and he was just like, I don't want to share this with you guys and he came back a year or two afterward and was like nah, I'm going to find a quieter spot and so...

TODD: Don't be too offended.

SARA: Yeah, I'm just trying not to be like oh, we scared away Mr. B.

But yeah, for a few years he would just come every... he didn't live there all year, it was just mostly in the winter time. It was a conifer tree so it was something that was an evergreen. But he loved it until we started banging around and then he was like I'm out of here.

TODD: So the the great horned owl that is at the wildlife exhibit does have gentlemen callers occasionally that come to visit. Great horned owls are another one that are... that are here year round and they're... they're in Riverside. There was one night a couple months ago there were two: one was on top of her enclosure, one was on the tree close by and they're all just going back and forth at each other.

SARA: Just hooting.

TODD: Yeah.

SARA: Oh, that's so fabulous. Well, thank you for bringing Mr. Odin here.

TODD: Yeah.

SARA: It's wonderful to see him. Now, does him only having one eye -- I mean obviously that impairs his vision to some extent but because he can turn his neck, does he overcompensate or does he rely heavily on his ear or his hearing?

TODD: Well, he's... he doesn't really have to work for his food too much so --

SARA: Right.

TODD: Their... their eyesight is... is quite important. Their eyes are also fixed forward. If you look at an owl's skull, it's not really an eyeball, it's more like an eye tube. They have a bony structure around it that gets kind of... I mean it's... they're always looking forward and that's kind of why they have that range of motion with their neck is that just so they can move it around a lot easier. But yeah, owls have multiple super powers. You mentioned hearing. Like barn owls are just exceptional at what they can hear. They're owls that they don't need to see anything to catch it. They can... they can hear it moving under under leaves, under the snow and they can they can still grab it just from listening to subtle sounds. And they fly silent. It's... it's really not fair, I mean, to... to have that night vision and that hearing ability and just to... to move through the night flapping your wings completely silent.

SARA: Yeah, that's remarkable. So when you feed him, do you feed him like frozen mice or do you actually have them like simulate hunting to some extent?

TODD: We... we don't. So with some of the animals we do have feeding enrichment of some kind. That doesn't include feeding anything alive. A lot of zoos and exhibits don't feed live food unless it's absolutely necessary in... in some cases. So the food that we get is thawed out. We get it from the Sedgwick County Zoo and he also gets something called bird of prey diet. It looks like hamburger but it's not. His other most common meal is a mouse. It's about a mouse a day.

SARA: He's sitting pretty there.

Well, that's wonderful. All right. Well, we're gonna go ahead and take another quick break. But when we come back, we'll be talking about animal advocacy with Todd Volkmann of the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit.

Commercial break

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SARA: Welcome back to the show. We're here with Todd Volkmann, exhibit caretaker for the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit at Riverside Central Park and his animal ambassador Odin. We've been talking about what it means to be an animal ambassador and the importance of that role for animal advocacy. Those two terms, they seem synonymous: animal advocacy and animal activism. But have you experienced situations in which one can hinder the other?

TODD: Yeah, I've... I've dealt with some situations. And just for... for clarification, I think of like being an advocate for something is kind of like you're going through the motions of, you know, letters and like by-the-book type engagements, I'm trying to help... help a situation. And for activism, I consider that a part of being an advocate but it's... it's a little more engaging. And often I think it's... it's portrayed in a negative aspect which can be unfortunate and there can be negative activism. But yeah, as far as how they relate to each other, I've thought about this. It's a very difficult topic to to deal with.

Being in an animal situation, a lot of people like animals and people have different thoughts on how they should be cared for. Seeing as how all these animals are native, there's kind of a thought that why can't they be released? We don't unfortunately... we don't even have a sign that explains that these... that these ambassadors for the most part are injured and simply cannot be released. Often when that's brought up, that's... that will do the trick. But there are other cases in where there's kind of a confusion between pets and wildlife and treating one like... treating wildlife as if they are pets. That's part of the reason some of these animals are here. You might be an advocate... advocate for their... for their well-being and be well intentioned. This is kind of what we talked about before, about might have been well-intentioned but just ends up in a bad situation.

But one of the things that I like to talk about that I consider kind of a safe zone is really conservation. My focus is really more on wildlife. Ideally they would be in the wild. I have mixed feelings about zoos and animals in captivity as well and I appreciate seeing animals in... in the wild, whether that's in a... in a state park, in a park around town or in your yard. And a lot of problems can occur trying to... I don't know, force how we deal with wildlife and also making wildlife feel like a pet. I'm not gonna... to name the... the Netflix series that came out last year regarding cats but that was a talking point here for a solid month. I tried to watch 10 minutes of it and I couldn't... I just... I stopped.

SARA: It was brutal.

TODD: Yeah. I doubt I'm ever going to watch it and I think I probably don't need to. But yeah, there's... there's so many different approaches to how people deal with with animals and with wildlife that it... it can be difficult to talk to or talk about. And I walk the line in a lot of cases. There's... I'm not going to go into detail about it but like pet cats and bird... like people that care about wild birds, that's where... it's where two worlds collide. There's other cases like that but so I try to... when I talk about animals and nature, I try to again go back to the misconceptions about them. I want people to think about like the impact that you have on... on nature, on... on wildlife, on animals and that's really what I try to focus on. As far as being an advocate for it, I like to think of myself as an advocate just, you know, for... for nature... nature in general, not just certain animals.

SARA: Yeah. I kind of had the same feeling about zoos for a long time. Like, oh, these animals are on display. You know, I don't really understand the conservation aspect of it. And then I had lived abroad for a while in Panama and their national animal's the golden tree frog and you couldn't find it in nature, you know, due to deforestation and then also like toxic runoff with pesticides and fertilizers. And so when I came to Wichita and went to the zoo and I saw one, I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is what it looks like! You know, and not in a picture in a book." And so it... it made more sense to me in that moment and I really do like that about especially the Sedgwick County Zoo that offers these exhibits that you can walk through and animals aren't necessarily caged. You know, certain animals have to be in certain types of enclosures but those that can just roam for lack of a better word do and that was really refreshing. That changed my mindset on like what a zoo means and what the purpose of a zoo could be.

TODD: Zoos have evolved a great deal in the last... last few decades. The... the classic pictures of just basically a concrete slab with with iron bars... I mean there's sadly... there's probably still zoos in the world like that. But yeah, you mentioned the... the conservation aspect. If you read any of the interpretive signs especially at the Sedgwick County Zoo, it's... it's an amazing zoo. And you mentioned the... the tree frogs. The reptiles and amphibians at the Sedgwick County Zoo, they do have a conservation aspect to them. Some of those animals are... I mean, they are highly endangered and the only chance they have existing is going to be in a... in a zoo environment and they've recently done a good job of collaborating with each other and saving quite a few species and it's... yeah, I'm... I'm okay with zoos as far as what they're doing with the... a lot of the conservation that... that they've tackled. It's not just, you know, Disney displays and sad cases anymore. It's... it's important work and it can be difficult sometimes.

SARA: Yeah, I remember as a child when I was growing up in the '90s it felt like zoos were like you said, kind of sad cases where you just saw these big animals in these small cages and... and while, you know, not every exhibit can lend to the space requirement that each animal needs, you can see there's a concentrated effort to make it more about conserving the species and not just displaying animals for entertainment. Yeah, that's... that's great.

Well, so you have worked in a lot of different capacities for the City like you mentioned. You worked at Great Plains Nature Center, you've worked as an exhibit caretaker at Kansas Wildlife Exhibit. Can you tell us some of your most bizarre encounters, animal encounters or something that you can... that comes to mind when you think of when you having chosen this path to work with animals?

TODD: Yeah. That's yeah, there's quite a few there's... there'd be a lot to pull from. I mentioned some of the unique animals that I was around growing up. So one of a... story that I like to share just because I'm really not afraid of very many animals -- I mean, I'll respect them -- but as far as fear, I'm kind of afraid of goats. Well, it had to do from it from an experience. Back when again the Sedgwick County Zoo, the the animal farm was just kind of a, you know, anything goes where everything was just kind of loose together, they weren't organized like they are now, putting a quarter in the machine got a handful of food and was knocked down, I'm pretty sure it's by a cow or like a calf but there were a lot of goats there. And as I went down, I was holding the food to my face which was a big mistake because I had all these goat mouths going at me. That was a traumatic animal moment.

But I have various ones. Another one I liked, another story about animals I like to share and it's one I bring out because I do have a tarantula here and I like to talk about animals like that -- so we do have tarantulas in Kansas and one of the things that I would come across, again when I was flipping rocks, looking for looking for things out there, you would see a tarantula next to a little toad called a narrowmouth toad. And I've probably seen this, I don't know, between... I don't know, around a dozen times in my life. Other people have seen it, it's an odd symbiotic relationship. It's something that should probably be in a children's story just because it is such a bizarre relationship between a rather large tarantula and this little tiny toad. But anyway, the reason they get... they get along so well is that they'll defend each other so that little toad will eat like ants and mites and things that can bother a tarantula whereas underneath a rock, a tarantula can be pretty formidable against like a small lizard or little snake or something that would go after the toad.

SARA: That's so adorable.

TODD: It is, it is.

There's been a lot of... I'm trying to think of a particular animal that is like... move me. I was lucky enough to participate in a black-footed ferret survey a few years ago in western Kansas. We have ferrets in the wild. If you're not familiar with them, they're the... probably the rarest mammal in the in the U.S. They're... they're not doing very well. They... it's interesting, I mean they're one of the greatest conservation comeback stories that that there is because they were declared extinct for quite some time. A small population was discovered and from just less than a dozen animals we have all the black-footed ferrets that we have now. But yeah, taking a spotlight in western Kansas looking for eye shine and trying to find black footed ferrets out there was... that was a good animal moment for me, not only for the black few -- and now I only found two black-footed ferrets but there's so much that was out there and that I just hadn't experienced.

I saw swift foxes, badgers, pronghorn which I saw a lot of pronghorn. And it's also the only place I've seen a golden eagle in... in the state of Kansas. There aren't very many prairie dog towns in the area. Prairie dogs aren't considered endangered but their... their range is just... I mean it's about 97, 98 percent of what it used to be, or that much has been taken away. So with that, that's the impact on other other species is really pretty significant especially with the black-footed ferret. So there's only a small area in western Kansas where really there's a large enough population for them to be sustained and we got to check that out for a few nights. That was a lot of fun.

SARA: That's awesome. So does the impact of the prairie dog because farmers would poison the prairie dog and then that was the what the prey for the ferret was, is that right?

TODD: Yeah and that topic was pretty... it was kind of a hot topic and it probably still is on that land in western Kansas. So there's really only one... one rancher that has this property that... I mean, it's covered in prairie dogs. It is a prairie dog town. And if you look at the fence, like literally just right across the fence, there are no prairie dogs, they're... they're eradicated. So there's just a confined area where they they can survive that population is pretty important because I'm pretty sure that's the only prairie dog population that does not have any plague presence. That's a serious issue in Wyoming and Montana where there's... there's larger areas but they're also being decimated by those... those pathogens.

SARA: Yeah, my sister lives in Colorado and her dog must have gotten a hold of a prairie dog that had some kind of plague or it was poison like they were using rat poison to kill out that population and then it... she took her forever to figure out what was going on with her dog and that... that was the case. So I mean, for our listeners to understand, like this... this issue is super complex, it's not just like let's get rid of a pest, it... it just exponentially touches so many different other species even our own.

TODD: Yeah, you mentioned poisons. I occasionally bring things like that up. We don't have a bird that has been lead poisoned but that's also for a lot of raptors in captivity. That's... that's a common cause, they'll eat maybe like the the guts of something that's been field dressed that might have lead in it. Fishing weights, bald eagles that are in captivity, a lot of them have been lead poisoned for one reason or another. And it doesn't take much to just ruin the bird's neurological system, unfortunately.

Sad note.

SARA: Yeah, sad note. Let's segue to a not-sad note.

So well, if you could tell our listeners two sage pieces of advice about animal care and or what not to do when encountering a wild animal, what would that be?

TODD: There's simply put -- and I know this is hard to do in a lot of situations is just to leave it alone. And it... it really is difficult. I understand how difficult it is but yeah, a lot of those situations that were touched upon earlier, well intentions aren't always the... the best ones. I mean, nature involves a lot of sad situations as far as animals needing other animals to survive. Bobcats don't eat salads. I mean, they... they eat other animals, a lot of birds and foxes and things like that. I'm sorry to say but baby rabbits feed a lot of things and it's... we've had situations at the nature center and even at the wildlife exhibit. I mean, people just leave animals in a box by the door. Who knows how long they've been there or... yeah. I mean, it's well intentioned but it's usually best just... just to leave them alone. There's a lot of misconceptions about baby birds. And I mean a lot of young birds can still survive on the ground and their parents can still be around. When birds first try to leave the nest, they're not always just gonna fly away and figure it all out, might take a day or two to get... get their wings and take flight. But it's tough, it is. Yeah, just let... let nature do its thing, it'll... it'll keep going. It doesn't always need our intervention.

As far as pets go, that's... that's really difficult. Some of the animals that are at the exhibit used to be people's pets and the same can be said for some of the ones at the... at the nature center. I like to bring up turtles. I love turtles. They are extremely difficult pets to be cared for properly. It's a good example of an animal that you come across in the wild and just because you find a turtle that might seem helpless, they're probably fine. They've... they've been around a long time. Just because they're they're quiet and slow doesn't mean they necessarily need our help, they've got it figured out. There's a lot of turtles that are really adapting well, almost too well to being around people. These red-eared sliders as the example, those are the ones that you see basking on a log or on the shoreline somewhere. There's a lot of water around Wichita and you can find them basically anywhere just because they have so much habitat now that they're... they're everywhere. I mean, they're not just confined to rivers and a couple lakes. There's... there's water all over the place. But because a lot of people have kept them as pets usually from a hatchling and this is another instance of when they're... something's older and larger, it's a little more difficult to to keep. It's... it's a messy animal when they're full size. There aren't very many people I know that have ever kept a full-size red-eared slider. And because of that, people move around. They're probably considered one of the most invasive reptiles on the planet. Kansas is in their natural range. I mean, they're... they've been here for a long time but now they're pretty much up and down the... or coast to coast I mean, up and down the west coast. They've spread across mainland Europe, southeast Asia, they're... they're everywhere now. Just start as being pets but that doesn't impact other turtle populations so that's something to think about.

SARA: No, definitely.

TODD: Think about a pet very carefully before you take it on.

SARA: Get some books.

TODD: Turtles also live an incredibly long time. I've... I've seen some sad cases, you can usually tell. I mean again, turtles don't vocalize so I mean if something's wrong, it's usually too late unfortunately to even do anything about it. You can tell a lot by their care if someone's had one from a hatchling to an adult by... by their shell or by other growth factors if they've had proper care, proper environments.

Just because they're alive doesn't necessarily mean that they've been properly cared for. I've seen a few shocking instances of aquatic turtles surviving on... on land. Different turtle species have different needs. Yeah, it's... at least yeah, make sure you... you know how to care... make sure you know what animal you have, like what species and how to properly care for it because the...y they need different care. I'm guilty of trying to use what I know and apply it to other things. A lot of people tend to do that with exotic pets and like the care that you know that like dogs and cats and more common pets might might need, trying to apply it to different animals, it just doesn't work with a lot of exotic animals, especially reptiles.

SARA: Definitely. We have a guinea pig at home and I didn't necessarily advocate to get this pet but I'm the one that's taking care of it all the time and I realized like how much care it takes and how long it lives and yeah, I, in retrospect, would have encouraged my family to do their research first before just bringing home this cute supposedly cuddly rodent.

TODD: They do have a sweet sound.

SARA: Yeah, they do and she motorboats like the best of them and she really does love me because I give her the attention and the care she needs. She's a little distant to the rest of the family. [CHUCKLES]

TODD: An easy solution to that is to visit the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit and check out these animals because you don't have to care for them.

SARA: You don't. You can say hi to them every day, you can see Todd feed them.

TODD: Feeding time's every day at noon and someone else will clean up after him.

SARA: That's the important, part right?

Well, thank you, Todd, for making time to join us today.

TODD: Thank you.

SARA: We appreciate all your hard work for caring for the animals at Kansas Wildlife Exhibit and extending that opportunity into education and advocacy for our community. Listeners can follow Todd and the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit on Facebook. I sure do. Again, thank you so much for for being with us today.

TODD: It's my pleasure, thank you.

SARA, VOICEOVER: Today we are joined by three librarians who will share their recommendations for noteworthy books that fit category 3 a book about animals or pets

CHARLES HANKINS: This is Charles Hankins. I work for the Wichita Public Library and I am here to talk about a book we're suggesting for category 3 of ReadICT. It's Watership Down by Richard Adams. There's a line author Richard Adams routinely used when interviewers tried to corner him about the meaning of his classic novel Watership Down: "It's about rabbits." Well, I see his point but Watership Down is about many things: exile and pilgrimage, military service and its aftermath, even a moral critique of the world man has made or perhaps deformed. Watership Down began as a loose collection of stories Richard Adams told his young daughters in the car to liven up road trips and ultimately grew into the epic tale of a group of rabbits -- Hazel, Fiber, Bigwig, Blackberry, Holly -- whose warren is destroyed by suburban development and who are then propelled on a cross-country quest, a night odyssey through a terrifying gauntlet of predators to establish a new warren. Along the way there is humor, mythology, romantic poetry, Greek tragedy, and Greek warfare. As a child reading Watership Down for the first time, I read the epigraphs of the head of each chapter mainly as atmospheric cues. Reading it for the second time just a few months later, I used them to compile a reading list: W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, William Blake, Robinson Jeffers, and of course Xenophon whose Anabasis is the classic account of an army crossing some very rough terrain and the basis of Walter Hill's classic 1979 film The Warriors as well. If Watership Down is a children's book -- and that's certainly an open question -- it would have to be in the borderland way that To Kill a Mockingbird or A High Wind in Jamaica are, books children are instinctively drawn to well before they are assigned novels about the twilight of childhood. Great novels about childhood after all are sometimes mistaken for children's books. For me now in my 50s as the novel's own 50th anniversary approaches, I come back to it again and again, still trying to understand what makes it so powerful.

SARA DIXON: Hi, I'm Sara Dixon, the adult programming manager at the Advanced Learning Library. For a book about a pet or animal, I am recommending Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton. This book is kind of weird but totally worth it. Bear with me. It follows a domesticated crow and a not-so-smart dog named Dennis with a heart of gold as they navigate the world of Seattle in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. After their human, Big Jim, falls to the virus, they realize they must go on a quest to try to save humanity and all the other pets. In order to do that, our humanized crow hero has to relearn the ways of the animal world and embrace his true crow-ness. This book is imaginative, clever, totally bizarre, and so very funny. It's not something I would normally pick up but I'm so glad someone recommended it to me so I'm recommending it to you. I should also mention that this book is not for people offended by strong language. Our crow hero has learned the English language and uses its most colorful words regularly. If you're okay with that, treat yourself to this book.

NOELLE: Hi friends, I'm Noelle, a library assistant here at the Wichita Public Library and I'd like to tell you about my all-time favorite book about animals: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver. Dog Songs is a short collection of poetry and essays about some of Oliver's very best friends: the dogs with whom she shared her life. If like me you don't think of yourself as a poetry fan, I challenge you to give Oliver a try anyway. Her ability to find beauty in the mundane and make it accessible to the rest of us is unsurpassed and this collection is so petite that you can read through it in an hour or two and then spend time revisiting the pieces you like the best. I have two favorites. One rhapsodizes about the quiet joys of the midnight half asleep snuggle and the second tells the story of the wicked smile on a dog named Ricky who cons his human out of two breakfasts. If you've ever loved a dog, I bet you'll love Dog Songs.

SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Thank you for those awesome recommendations and thank you to the listeners of today's episode. Listeners can request books by visiting our website,, or calling the library at (316) 261-8500. To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit To find a full list of books mentioned in this episode, please visit And as always, stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes wherever you get your podcast. If you like what you heard today, be sure to leave us a 5 star review. This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to those staff members who helped produce this episode. I'm your host, Sara McNeil. Join us next time when we will be discussing category 8 -- a book about local history -- with curator of collections from the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. We will discover the rich histories of a city whose namesake was adopted from the Wichita Indian tribe to the dawn of aviation in the early 20th century, making Wichita the air capital of the world.

Books Mentioned in This Episode

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