Caring for creatures big and small
When Professor of Biology Dr. Todd Heldreth walks through the Animal Forest at Charles Towne Landing, he wears a smile and carries a bag of treats ready for his furry friends Memphis, Clark, and Darla. Outside of teaching full time in the classroom at Charleston Southern University, he puts on his proverbial veterinarian hat each week to care for wildlife at the popular state historic site—known as the birthplace of South Carolina—within its natural habitat zoo.
Heldreth knows each animal by name, their unique personalities, and sometimes begs for their forgiveness for the last time he had to give them necessary treatment such as a vaccine, surgery, or beak clipping.
“They remember and can hold a grudge,” he stated, acknowledging that some harbor ill feelings longer than others. Others are easily appeased with treats.
Though Heldreth doesn’t claim favorites, there are some that steal his heart more than others—like Memphis. This large black bear shows off his fun personality when Heldreth stops by for a visit. In true bear fashion, he seeks those special treats from the human who ensures the bear’s health is on the right track. Then there’s Clark, the majestic elk, who happily trots over to the fence to greet Heldreth seeking a nibble of an apple and a nose rub.
One can almost forget that these creatures were once wild. But due to injury, ailments, and unique situations, they will spend the remainder of their life in the Animal Forest, being cared for in the best possible way by zookeepers and vets. The fences (and Heldreth) serve as a reminder that the beasts (black bear, elk, bison, puma, red fox, etc.) are still, in fact, beasts. And that proper handling and processes are followed for their safety and the safety of the humans who care for them.
However, some of the Animal Forest’s inhabitants—the white-tailed deer, opossum, goats, pigs, tortoises, otters, and various sea birds—allow some closer handling without the need for tranquilizers or protected vehicles. In fact, Darla—one of the deer on site—gives kisses to her favorite vet. And Madame quite literally hogs the show, oinking away when a human approaches and vacuuming up any treats before other farm animals have a chance at it.
Journey to the Forest
Prior to Charleston Southern and the Animal Forest, Heldreth treated, diagnosed, and performed surgeries on countless furry patients in private practice for 18 years. He received his Bachelor of Science in biology from Emory and Henry College in 1984 before going on to Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine where he received his PhD in veterinary medicine.
Serving as a vet was a rewarding experience, but he sought a change of pace. He left private practice to begin teaching biology at CSU in 2006. Heldreth teaches courses in zoology, mammalogy, and parasitology, as well as anatomy and physiology sections for prenursing students.
Many of his students want to go into animal-related fields. And, thanks to the natural bridge in Heldreth’s relationship with the local zoo, they get that opportunity. Each year, as many as 20 students in CSU’s biology program intern or volunteer at Charles Towne Landing’s Animal Forest.
“Even if they don’t stay here long, it looks good on their resumes and it’s also just good animal experience,” Heldreth added. Some of those students have been hired on at the Animal Forest.
In fact, the top dog at the Forest happens to be a CSU alumnus.
Jillian Davis ’09 began volunteering in Charles Towne Landing’s education department at age 15. She discovered her passion at a young age, went on to get her degree from Charleston Southern, and developed her potential by interning and volunteering at the Animal Forest. She never left. Now Davis serves as the head zookeeper aka the Animal Forest curator.
“I’ve basically lived here my entire life, but I love it—it’s a testament to how great it is here,” Davis said of her work home at the Landing.
For those interested in checking out the Animal Forest and learning more about wildlife or veterinary care, Charles Towne Landing offers the Interview with a Veterinarian program. Check out their website to see these and other events at southcarolinaparks.com/charles-towne-landing/programs-and-events.