The 23-year-old African gray parrot’s beady yellow eyes, curved beak, red tail and massive wingspan terrified Amanda Wright. Until he changed her life.
Tut, one of the ambassador animals at the Santa Fe College teaching zoo, was donated by a private owner in 2012. Wright, who earned her associate’s degree in zoo animal technology from Santa Fe College in 2018, was the first trainer of Tut.
When she received her training assignment from her instructor in 2017, she hoped she wouldn’t be paired with a bird. In particular, she didn’t want to work with Tut, the smartest bird in the zoo.
“Tut was, in my opinion, the most intimidating animal in the entire zoo,” he said. “I can’t say why they decided to pair me with Tut, but I can say they made a great choice.”
During the third semester of the five-semester program, students take a zoo-themed class to learn about animal behavior and training. The test at the end of the semester determines who will go on to train animals at the zoo, and then the instructors will match the animals with the student trainers.
“(Wright) was an education trainee, and we knew Tut was going to be trained to educate and teach people about parrots and how to be responsible pet owners,” said Jade Salamone, curator of conservation education. “She was very good at talking about animals and being the presenter and voice of the animals.”
Animals, particularly parrots, need consistency and routine. The first step for Wright and Tut was to build a relationship.
“Tut had to learn to trust me not to do anything disturbing, and I had to learn to trust Tut not to bite me with that nutshell-crunching beak of his,” Wright said.
When Tut started growing up at Wright, he overcame his fear of birds and Tut became the highlight of his day.
“I was no longer afraid of their beaks and their beady eyes,” he said. “I’ve grown to love their adorable waddling walk, the way they turn their heads to the side to see something that fascinates them, and their little feather pants.”
Wright, 30, said that over time he began to pick up on Tut’s quirks and personality. She describes him as hilarious, larger than life, stubborn, and manipulative.
“African grays can mimic people’s voices right down to their intonation, so he would sometimes say something just as a student was walking around turning them around expecting to see the zoo manager behind them,” he said. “But it was only Tut.”
The bird is part of the zoo’s educational programs, which include virtual presentations and after-school and library programs. The zoo also hosts events and birthday parties where people can watch Tut work with his trainer while a narrator teaches the crowd.
He knows a variety of commands, including nodding his head, raising his wings, differentiating shapes, and painting on a canvas.
After Wright, Tut had nine coaches.
Spring Williams, 20, is his current coach. She said her personalities work well together, which is an attribute instructors look for when assigning an animal a trainer.
“I think sometimes Tut is a little ball of chaos, but in the best possible way,” he said. “I would say that my friends can describe me in the same way sometimes. He is, I think in every way, similar to me.”
The zoo focuses on positive reinforcement and gives the animals autonomy when it comes to training them. This helps ambassador animals interact with the people they help educate and provides a sense of control during veterinary care.
“I think an animal can be trained to do anything, as long as its trainer has patience and really understands the science and art of training,” Williams said.
White-throated capuchin monkeys have learned to give zookeepers permission to touch them, which helps with their exams and when they have wounds that need treatment. One of the zoo’s armadillos is currently being trained to sit still on a perch while an ultrasound is done.
The zoo gives students the opportunity to work intimately with a variety of animals that they might not otherwise have access to. Gladi Gomez, 21, is a zookeeper on the show and she has been fascinated with animals since she started watching “Animal Planet” when she was 5 years old. Her interest in zoo maintenance goes beyond simply picking up droppings and cleaning enclosures.
“It is more to see what they are like, what their species is like, to learn about the species and show it to the public and tell people how good it is to help these animals,” he said.
Gómez emphasized the importance of caring for the environment and actively working to prevent climate change.
Some of the most important ways to help the environment, he said, are to use less paper, pick up trash and limit the use of resources like water. The zoo also serves as a sanctuary for animals that could not survive on their own due to injury or poor environmental conditions.
“I would love for all of our animals to be out in the wild and living their best life and having a good population,” he said. “But unfortunately there’s a lot going on in our world that won’t allow that to happen.”
Wright said she finds working with animals important to both the animals and the zookeepers. She provided her with skills that she used years later in the field of library science. And the health and welfare of the animals are assured. She sees zoos as a path to a future where people can better understand and respect the environment.
“Zoos entertain people, yes, but their real lasting impact is their ability to inspire, to make people care,” Wright said.