Nick Benesh had a scrub brush in one hand and a big cockatoo named Georgia on the other. Sharron Wilhelm already had flipped her blonde head upside down to wipe off a plastic wall before she thought to look for the young alligators just a few feet away. And in a regular white Kenmore refrigerator, Dawn Willis made an unusual discovery.
“How did a porcupine quill get in here?” she asked, holding a small spine she’d found as she was cleaning out the freezer. Co-workers realized it must have come from a hedgehog that had died several years earlier that had been temporarily stored there.
Such surprises are part of the big annual mini-zoo winter cleanup in Macon’s Museum of Arts and Sciences, where the unusual and unexpected are the norm. It works both ways, said animal assistant Ashley Williams, who shares a Gordon home with a husband, two children, a squirrel, tarantulas and more common pets.
“What we take as normal probably sounds bizarre to people,” said Williams, who once interrupted a phone call with her mother to attend to a cockroach. Wednesday, she was sweeping the floor underneath a pair of birds from Africa and Australia, rarely glancing at the birds sitting above her.
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The mini-zoo will reopen at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The annual cleanup melds the usual with the unusual. Willis went through the animals’ refrigerator, pointing out how nearly all the food there is like what normal people have at home — apples, potatoes, plantains, even collards. Then she looked at the door.
“The monkeys and the gators love the marshmallows,” she said.
After she discovered the hedgehog spine, she used an ordinary kitchen scrubber to wipe down the freezer section, which holds the food for most of the mini-zoo’s inhabitants. Then she reorganized the bags of frozen rodents.
While the animals’ living areas are regularly cleaned, the winter cleaning lets workers do a more thorough job. Just about everything in the mini-zoo will be well scrubbed before reopening Saturday — everything, that is, except the monkeys’ area, which gets its detailed makeover in the fall, when the eight tamarins are sent off to the vet. That’s an ordeal in itself, both for mini-zoo workers and the veterinarian’s staff. Worse, though, the monkeys resent the cleaning and do their best to scent-mark the area again, with a vengeance.
But the monkey business happens in the fall, and the other 60 or so animals are getting the attention this week. Wilhelm, the museum’s curator of living collections and the self-described head pooper scooper, matches unusual animal habitats with Windex, bleach and some other common and uncommon cleaners.
“We’re up to our elbows in stuff, probably stuff most people wouldn’t consider having their elbows in,” Wilhelm said with a laugh, then returned to dangling head-first into the alligator tank to wipe the walls.
Thang, a 7-year-old American alligator, is unlikely to show appreciation to the workers who improvised a gator Heimlich maneuver when he choked on a piece of chicken. But Thang and his tankmate Fatty aren’t the only museum animals that can be dangerous or annoying. Jane, the museum’s giant, bird-eating tarantula, flung hairs at Wilhelm’s arm the other day, hairs that keep making her arm itch. Soon one staff member will supervise Daisy, the 11-foot, 75-pound albino Burmese python, while she lounges around the mini-zoo and other staff members clean her special room.
Nearly all the animals were donated. Daisy came from a Macon family that realized the python was getting too big for comfort and gave her up long before she hit the 200-pound mark. Some animals were rescued, like Stormy the possum, who fell out of a tree after the 2008 Mother’s Day tornadoes.
Benesh, who volunteered at the mini-zoo about eight years before getting hired in August, offers excess hissing cockroaches to visitors. One became a Christmas present.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.