The Guardians of Austin Zoo
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
A few years ago, a wonderful couple, Scott and Andi, adopted a dog. They discovered it was probably an Akbash. Wanting to learn more about the breed, they joined an Akbash dogs Facebook group. Fast forward two years later and they found themselves moving to Austin for Scott's new job as the Director of Animal Care/Vet services at the Austin Zoo. Little did they know that this would be the beginning of an incredible journey with six amazing livestock guardian dogs (LGD).
The zoo had two older dogs; Sophie a Great Pyrenees and Freddie, an Anatolian Shepherd mix that worked at night guarding the zoo residents. In light of recent animal break-ins, Scott started thinking that the zoo needed to get additional LGDs to help and eventually replace the older ones when they officially retired. Scott hoped to adopt three or four LGDs, and preferred to find rescues since Austin Zoo was founded on rescuing animals. Not knowing exactly where to get them from, he remembered the Facebook groups that they had joined a couple of years back. Through posts and messages, they found Jeanene of Akbash Dog Rescue Network. With the help of several others, Jeanene had taken in a mommy and her pups from an abandonment situation. Scott and Andi also connected with Lynette of Bluebonnet Animal Rescue Network (B.A.R.N.) who specializes in rescuing and adopting out LGDs. After having many insightful discussions with Lynnette and Jeanene, he learned what would be ideal for the zoo and the dogs. The recommendation was to adopt two experienced LGDs who are good with people and other dogs as well as two of the rescued puppies so that they could learn what to do from the more experienced ones. Scott travelled north of Dallas to B.A.R.N. to meet the dogs and see which ones would be a good fit for the job of "Zoo Guardian."
After the dogs were selected, B.A.R.N. handled the paperwork and Austin Zoo officially adopted the dogs. Lynette made sure vaccinations were good to go for them to enter the zoo grounds and delivered Beauty, a 3 year old Anatolian Shepherd, and Titus, a three year old Great Pyrenees, to their new home for their first day of work. Jeanene and her husband delivered the 2 female Akbash mix pups who were approximately six months old, to the zoo themselves to begin their new role as zoo "guardians-in-training". The pups were appropriately given Turkish names Zeya (Zay-ah) meaning "light" and Selale (Sha-lah-lay) meaning "waterfall", as the Akbash breed originated from Turkey.
The guardians have their own "zoo house". This is where they spend the days resting with a large backyard to play in until they are released in the evening to roam. Scott spent the first three nights sleeping with them so they settled in well. Scott recalls the first days of their arrival at the zoo. "They were scared of being in a new place, so I would lay on the floor with them in our zoo house and they would sleep on top of me." He also adds "the puppies were let out during the day and put in the petting corral to learn to guard the goats and sheep better and see everything that was going on." Scott would take them for walks to meet the residents of the zoo. It didn't take long for the dogs to learn the routine and to live and work comfortably around lions, tigers and bears.
Scott reports that "Beauty is the leader of the pack and the boss for sure but she is also the most aloof and the one who you really have to win her over to be allowed into her inner circle so I am honored to be a part of it. Some staff still have to work to be allowed into her pack." He adds that "Titus is basically a lovable goofball who wants attention from us all the time and will just run up to you and flop on the ground and just be like 'rub my belly'. He loves attention and will jump into the utility vehicles that we drive around the property just for a ride sometimes. He has high guardian instincts and will stay with his human like glue, especially ones he considers close to him like myself and some other staff members. He is always a playful happy boy but he knows what his job is when we are gone or hears coyotes in the distance or strangers and will tell them off and drive them away."
When asked about Zeya, Scott notes that "she is just a playful puppy still but again she knows her job and performs it well and is probably the boss out of her and Selale. She likes to chase peafowl sometimes and then when you tell her no she comes running back like 'but I was just playing'. She loves attention and is completely at home with the staff and will run and just jump on people and knock them over sometimes to get the hug she wants." He also reports that "Selale is also a playful puppy that initiates a lot of play with the others but she is the shy one of the puppies and is also a huge attention hog but in a much more subtle aloof way unless she is bonded with you, she will jump on you to get that hug or attention she requires. She was the one that adjusted slower when arriving and would look to me for safety and comfort until she came out of her shell. She also knows her job very well and patrols the zoo perfectly."
The dogs actively guard many hoofstock species, endangered exotic birds and mammals and endangered primate species. The zoo has free roaming peafowl and guineafowl that roost in the trees and the dogs keep out predators such as foxes and coyotes that may be looking for an easy meal. The dogs have learned to leave visitors such as armadillos, snakes and even porcupines alone (after one run in, of course). Prior to getting the dogs, Scott has spent many nights watching through night vision goggles to take inventory of predators. A band of transient coyotes once passed through the territory which is run by a very large male. Scott reports that "the coyote and his mate have a good understanding with us to stay out the zoo and they kind of help us protect the outside." He considers them an ally and aide to the dogs in protecting the zoo.
Every night when the zoo is empty and clear and all gates are shut, the guardians get to work. From 6 pm - 7 am, the dogs roam the entire 54 acres of Texas hill country and run along the fence line and protect the zoo residents from intruders and predators. Before Scott and the keepers go home, they socialize with the dogs and enjoy the attention. There is one staff member who performs night rounds to check that every lock is secure and animals have heat in the cold or cooling in the hot summers. The dogs perform the rounds with the keeper and guard him as they walk around the zoo. They do a good job actively guarding the zoo and will appear out of nowhere and bark loudly at intruders.
Scott concludes with his observations of the older rescues. "I think Beauty and Titus are great leaders for the youngsters which was the plan I had all along. Beauty will even sometimes round the puppies up in the morning if they are being crazy balls of energy and kind of barks at them and runs them back to the backyard and house as if saying 'come on guys it's breakfast time lets go, stop screwing around and lets go eat and rest'. Sophie and Freddie are old and retired now and spend their days lounging around the zoo areas off of public view doing what they want to."
We'd like to thank Jeanene for her tireless efforts to help livestock guardian dog breeds and Bluebonnet Animal Rescue Network who rescues and places the dogs in homes and environments in which they'll best thrive. We are grateful for Sophie, Freddie, Beauty, Titus, Zeya and Selale for doing a job that no one else can do as good as them! Most of all, we give mad props to Scott and Andi for advocating for non-lethal predator management and rescued livestock guardian dogs and for ensuring the safety of the rescued animals at the Austin Zoo!