Cheryl Phelps just loves the animals at Micke Grove Zoo.
“Hi, Cindy Lou,” Phelps said to her favorite spider monkey. “She’s got the prettiest little face.”
But Phelps, 40, is one of two part-time animal care specialists being laid off on Friday to cut costs for cash-strapped San Joaquin County, which owns the south Lodi zoo. A full-time animal care specialist was laid off as well.
Micke Grove Zoo saw the ax fall as county officials had to cope with public safety, funding the county jail, protecting rural areas from loose animals, protecting Delta levees, helping the elderly and coping with the county-owned San Joaquin General Hospital, which has lost money and drained the remainder of the county budget.
As an animal care specialist, Phelps had been working eight hours a day, two to three days a week.
She cleans animal cages each morning to make them presentable for zoo visitors. She prepares food for animals depending on their dietary needs. She feeds animals and gives them their medication.
“We have to know which foods are OK and which are not OK,” Phelps said. “We try to give them close to what they eat in the wild.”
The kitchen, where food is prepared, contains fresh fruits and vegetables, but it also houses dead animals — they resembled road kill — that animals will eat for breakfast.
The rest of the day, Phelps becomes the animals’ friend and explains their personalities to zoo visitors.
And she makes it clear that each animal has a distinct personality. For example, Buddy is a tortoise who enjoys it when Phelps scratches his shell.
In addition to losing her job, Phelps said she is disappointed that the dire economy has prevented the county from adding brown bears, mountain lions, river otters, flying foxes, snow and amur leopards, Asian alligators, komodo dragons, and even some jaguars and penguins.
“We were getting ready to get some cool animals, but — bam!— we’re shut down,” Phelps said.
The new animals were part of a long-term zoo master plan as the grounds were expanded. The so-called “east end” is only partially done, and looks more like a construction site than a zoo.
“I want to see that master plan move ahead,” Phelps said. “I know the public loves this zoo.”
Phelps said she’s worried that, with only four individuals left to care for animals, that there may not be enough people to adequately take care of all the animals. That means that zoo administrators may have to find new homes for some of the animals, she said.
One such animal may be Mia, a gibbon whose male companion, Norbert, died of cancer in December.
“Mia stopped singing,” Phelps lamented.
Zoo curator Matt McKim had arranged to acquire a new male to keep Mia company, but he put that idea on hold after hearing that the zoo’s budget might be cut.
“Now it looks like we’re going to find a home for Mia,” Phelps said.
McKim said that he and zoo director Ken Nieland haven’t decided to relocate Mia to another zoo, but her future and that of other animals are being discussed. They’ll decide in a week or two on a tentative plan about what to do about Mia and other zoo animals after they determine how many of them the staff can provide care for.
“These animals need to be given a good quality of life, and Ken is adamant about that,” Phelps said. “I don’t want to see this zoo shut down.”
County Administrator Manuel Lopez said the idea of closing the zoo is rather “farfetched.”
Parks and Recreation Director Craig Ogata said he’s asked Nieland and McKim to let him know if this year’s cuts to the zoo budget would require a reduction in the animal population. If that turns out to be the case, Ogata said he will report it to the Board of Supervisors.
Phelps always wanted to work with animals
Cheryl Phelps, an animal care specialist who is losing her job on Friday due to the budget cuts facing San Joaquin County, said she had wanted to work for the zoo since she was 15.
“I plan on retiring here,” she said.
A Lodi resident since she was 12 years old, Phelps attended a small private school in Sacramento. She received a Bachelor of Science in biology and field ecology at California State University, Sacramento.
She was an outreach teacher employed by the Micke Grove Zoological Society from the summer of 2006 until the society stopped funding the program a year later. She was hired by the county as a zookeeper on April 2, 2007. Phelps was a zookeeper 30 to 40 hours a week before her hours were cut to 16 hours a week about five or six months ago. Now she is being laid off.
“It’s a huge loss to me,” she said. “Maybe someday in the future, I’ll be able to come back.”
In any case, Phelps hopes to find a new job working with animals or conservation.
Not only did Phelps lose her job, but so did her new husband, who was laid off from his landscaping job.
Phelps said she may join her parents, grandparents, brother and uncle, who recently moved to Nebraska for economic reasons.
“I stayed here for this job,” she said.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at email@example.com.