Savannah Brethauer spends her days with creatures that can’t speak to her, but she knows how to bond with them.

Brethauer, the head keeper at Sunset Zoo, finds a way to connect with animals of all sizes at the zoo.

“Even our little dart frogs have personalities,” she said. “I can identify all of them.”

Brethauer is originally from California and was a 911 operator before joining the U.S. Army for seven years. She was a medic known for her interest in animals.

“Any way I could be around animals, that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “The whole time I was deployed, any time anybody would find anything, a weird snake, a weird bug, they’d say, ‘Go get Savannah!’”

She ended her military career at Fort Riley and started working at Milford Nature Center. Brethauer, 34, joined the staff at Sunset Zoo in 2017 and was named head keeper two years later. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science with a concentration in fisheries and wildlife from American Military University and is working on a master’s degree in management with a concentration in organizational leadership.

Brethauer’s love of animals goes back to her childhood. She participated in 4-H and FFA. Her family has a small farm, so she said she has a soft spot for livestock.

Brethauer’s mother tells a story about her as a child walking into the house with a small snake hanging off her finger. But she didn’t want to kill the snake, only to get it off her finger.

“One of the true signs you’re an animal person is what you do when something bites you,” she said. “Is your reaction to scream and chuck it or is your reaction to sit there and take it until you can safely get it where it needs to go?”

It’s a love she has passed on to her own daughter, Riley, 7. Brethauer said her daughter, who she frequently brings to work with her, has caught spiders and asked her to identify them and corrected people who call the zoo’s wallabies “kangaroos.”

“It makes my heart so happy,” Brethauer siad. “I am happiest because it teaches her compassion. I’ve never met a child as compassionate as her down to the smallest bug.”

Brethauer has an especially strong bond with the zoo’s youngest male chimp, Koto, who is only a little older than her daughter, and said they’ve grown up together.

“He definitely knows who I am,” Brethauer said. “I’m one of his favorite people. He likes to play back and forth with my daughter.”

Brethauer said developing bonds with the animals can be difficult, and some have zookeepers they prefer to have care for them. Often it just takes spending time with the animal and slowly building their trust. Sunset Zoo’s female gibbon, she said, will let her baby play with Brethauer. A raccoon will let another of the keepers trim his nails.

“That’s a huge win for you to have an animal trust you enough to do something like that,” Brethauer said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of just sitting there with them and letting them get used to your presence.”

In addition to Koto and the other primates, Brethauer said she loves working with the birds, especially the turkey vulture. She said she’s quickly fallen in love with the zoo’s new sloth bears.

Developing those close relationships with the creatures leads to what Brethauer called the most difficult part of the job: animal loss. She said it was heartbreaking, for example, when a pelican at Sunset Zoo died earlier this year.

“I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much over a pelican,” Brethauer said.

She said sometimes the public doesn’t understand how painful it is for keepers to grieve the animals they care for every day.

“I’ve slept at the zoo to be with sick animals,” she said. “It’s no different than somebody who absolutely loves their dog. These animals down to the smallest are our lives.”

Educating people on how the zoo works and about its animals is another of Brethauer’s biggest passions. She said one of the most rewarding aspects of the job, outside of working with the animals, is making a connection with a child who wants to learn.

“For all I know, one child I interact with could be a Nobel Prize winner one day,” she said. “It could inspire them to grow into an adult who wants to make change.”

Brethauer said people love to see big animals like elephants or tigers in zoos, but she enjoys trying to show them the special things about smaller animals that are just as important to the ecosystem.

“It’s nice when we can get people to care about the little guys,” she said.

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