March 20, 2019

By Chawna Schuette, Herpetarium Keeper

I have been a keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo for the past 20 years. Currently, I work at the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium as a reptile and amphibian keeper. Earlier this year, thanks to funding from the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute’s Dexter Fund, I was lucky enough to travel to Ecuador to visit one of my department’s conservation programs.

The WildCare Institute and the Saint Louis Zoo have partnered with Centro Jambatu, an amphibian conservation organization in Quito, Ecuador, since 2006. As this collaboration grows, the Zoo is increasing its capacity for Ecuadorian amphibians at the Herpetarium.

I have been working with amphibians for over two decades, and I was excited to travel to Ecuador to learn as much as possible about frog husbandry, invertebrate cultures, veterinary care and the reproduction of the species at Centro Jambatu.  Even though I had a passport for a while, this was my first time traveling abroad. 

The staff in Ecuador were very welcoming, and I was able to spend time with each staff member. Each member of the team specialized in different parts of managing the amphibians at the facility. For example, one keeper primarily works with the harlequin toad species, another with the tree frogs and glass frog, and another the poison dart frogs. There was also a staff member specialized in culturing food items for the facility such as fruit flies, springtails, spiders and more. I was particularly interested in the invertebrate cultures. I was fascinated in learning how the keeper who designed the facility was able to incorporate such a level of efficiency into the organization, and how staff was able to produce high quality food items for the frogs.

I took notes and reflected on each day and returned the next day with more questions, eager to learn. I was even able to spend some time with the veterinarian and share case information on parasites and various other diseases and treatment methods. We exchanged information and shared ideas, and the experience was highly beneficial. I was able to form friendships with several staff members, and some of us still keep in touch. I am helping them learn English, and they are helping me with my Spanish.

It was a challenge not speaking their language, but Ecuador is a beautiful country with many old buildings, as well as new architecture. The people were friendly and helpful. They were also understanding of my not speaking the language very well, and they seemed to appreciate my attempts. I tried my best to learn the basics, like how to order food, be polite, bargain for items, ask directions and, most importantly, ask for the bathroom! I managed to make my way around with Uber and taxis, and I even took the bus. The public transportation system is very good, and most people use it. 

Quito was just like any big American city, except there are street vendors everywhere! Vendors offer all sorts of goods from fresh empanadas to yogurt and candy. I even saw someone selling socks! There are always people in the street offering to sell you cold drinks or wash your windows, or doing some sort of street performance, all to earn money.

Stay tuned for part two of my Ecuadorian travels.