You Have a Zoo?

Message From The Director

By Paul McCormack, Director of State Parks and Jillian Delorge-Davis, Animal Forest Curator

Having the opportunity to meet with park professionals from around the country is always an interesting experience.  We are so similar in our passions and what pushed us into this career, yet we work in such different systems and with such different resources that our conversations sometimes turn into a game of, “YOU MANAGE WHAT?” From football stadiums to high rise hotels, diamond fields to roadside attractions with mermaids, America’s State Parks have some unique attractions. When it’s the South Carolina ranger’s turn to play “You Manage What?” we often turn heads when we say, “we have a zoo!” So, did you know that one of South Carolina State Park’s most unique attractions is a zoo? If not, let me tell you about it.

Our “zoo” is the Animal Forest at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site.  The park, which celebrates the landing site of the original Carolina settlers in 1670, gives visitors a chance to learn about early colonial history with an interactive and informative museum, visitors center, audio tour, replica sailing vessel, regularly scheduled cannon firings and a trip through habitats that showcase animals native to the 17th century.  Running the Animal Forest takes a team of experts comprised of employees and volunteers that make sure the animals are healthy and safe.  This is no small task, especially when you consider some of the animals they have charge over.

From bison and black bear to bobcats, river otters, turkeys and red wolves, the inhabitants of the Animal Forest give us a peek into our past.  The staff not only cares for these animals, but engages with the larger animal care community to assist where needed.  Through the years we have assisted, and in some cases provided homes, for wayward elk, pet pumas and bears, injured shorebirds and the critically endangered red wolf.  This year, the hard work of the staff is paying off in many ways with our Red Wolf Species Survival Program. This program has created some of the healthiest specimens. In fact, two red wolves will be part of a national breeding program that may bring new pups to the park in the coming year.  It is a great tribute to the quality of the program the park runs.

With a large amount of excitement over the red wolves, we are reminded that excitement comes in small packages too.  This month our staff proposed the idea of adding reptiles back into the Animal Forest collection and had their hopes set specifically on the endangered gopher tortoise. Once a thriving native species, our staff knew it was important to tell their story and educate guests on why these animals are important to South Carolina’s ecosystem.  With help from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Animal Forest was able to secure proper permits to house this highly endangered reptile, and we are excited to announce that the Charles Towne Landing Animal Forest is going to receive Leo, a young gopher tortoise! Leo was taken from the wild and kept as a pet by someone unaware of its species or protected status.  After he developed metabolic bone disease, Leo was brought to a rehabilitation center that properly cared for and identified his species.  The owner surrendered the tortoise, which had been hand raised since a hatchling, and a now healthy Leo had found his new home at Charles Towne Landing.

Leo Gopher Tortoise

What’s next for Leo, you ask? For starters, the tortoise is now in an environment surrounded by knowledgeable handlers and professionals who can better provide the proper diet and care he needs.  That’s great news for Leo.  The great news for our visitors is for the first time in many years we will be providing opportunities to learn about a native reptile that most have never seen in the wild!  We hope Leo is the start of a larger initiative and that one day our guests may be able to catch a glimpse of an adult gopher tortoise as it moves through its habitat in the Animal Forest.  Welcome to the family Leo, we are excited you are here!