Michael Sakatos ’98 works face-to-snout and hand-in-paw with a variety of beasts
by Lauren Davidson
July 1, 2011
“The ostrich that we have are great,” says Michael Sakatos ’98, a keeper on the East Savannah team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. “We have three females, and they can be an aggressive species, but these girls are just so easy to work with. Their favorite pastime is pecking on our keeper truck when we drive through the safari.”
Lions and cheetahs and warthogs … that would make most of us say “oh my” and give thanks for our desk jobs, but Michael Sakatos ’98 savors spending every day with these wild creatures. For the last seven years, he’s been with East Savannah, one of a dozen animal-care teams at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in Orlando, Fla. The East Savannah team is responsible for the park’s lions, cheetahs, white rhinos, ostrich, warthogs and various African hooved stock.
Sakatos’ interest in animals started in childhood and blossomed as a Dickinson biology major with the help of a sophomore-year internship with his advisor, Janet Wright, professor emerita of biology.
“We were working on her ongoing research with the Allegheny wood rat, a small mammal that lives throughout Pennsylvania,” he recalls. “We did a lot of fieldwork and research. It was fantastic to be so hands on.”
Sakatos interned the summer after his junior year at the Baltimore Zoo, which got him hooked on zoo-keeping. After graduation he worked at a veterinary hospital before being hired by Bergen County Zoological Park in New Jersey—a small zoo with only 10 acres and an animal-care staff of seven.
While pursuing a master’s in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University, Sakatos joined the night team at Animal Kingdom. After a year, he moved to his current daytime position. His 10-hour shifts entail feedings, administering medications, assembling exhibits, shifting animals from holding areas to public exhibits and cleaning holding areas. He interacts with the facilities, horticulture and water-science teams on the Kilimanjaro Safari Attraction—100 acres of African-safari-like terrain that visitors are transported through. Sakatos also provides individual animal training and pursues long-term projects.
“I’m working on a project to map the various features of our exhibit that all of the keepers should know,” Sakatos says. “What’s more interesting is that I’m using GIS mapping technology, which is something I learned at Dickinson with Professor Wright.”
Beyond the daily demands of caring for the health and safety of the park’s wildlife, Sakatos bonds with the animals and discovers the personalities beneath their feathers and fur.
“The bontebok have a lot of personality,” he says. “They are African antelope with reddish-brown-purplish fur and a white patch on their rump … and they are just something else. They love to disappear on you and show up in the most unlikely places.”
So which animal is Sakatos’ favorite? “I’m definitely a fan of working with the lions,” he says. “They have such incredible personalities. One in particular, Nairobi—they must have based Alex from the Madagascar movie off of him! He’s such a lovable doofus, and training him is a lot of fun.”
But where there’s fun, there’s also danger. Sakatos’ team employs protected contact with almost all of its species, which means that a physical barrier separates man and beast.
“With the white rhinos, there are bollards between us, but they are set apart enough that the rhinos can put their muzzle through, and we can reach in between,” Sakatos explains. “It’s useful when we do our training.”
Keepers can request simple behaviors of the rhinos, such as putting their muzzles against keepers’ palms, moving up or moving back. Lions also can sit and lie down on command.
A more harrowing instance of protected contact is when animals are moved into medical crates for exams or anesthetization.
“It’s a dangerous situation when animals are immobilized,” Sakatos says. “You want to make sure that everyone is safe and you know what you’re going to do in any situation. A worst-case scenario is an animal coming out of anesthesia before you’re ready.”
With these varied experiences under his safari hat, Sakatos’ passion for animals continues to grow, and he loves to share that with thousands of visitors to the park.
“Animals in zoos are ambassadors for their species,” he says. “I want people to be able to see these animals and get a passion for them, to want to help conserve or preserve their wild counterparts. You can read about animals, but until you really see them, you can’t get a passion for them.”
See more photos of Michael Sakatos ’98 working with animals.