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Mother Nature’s Café

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Inge Ebert just can’t get away from the stage, not that she would want to.

She’s directing the play “Driving Miss Daisy” for the Swamp Fox Players for the next two weeks, and that has left less time for her to lead visitors through “Mother Nature’s Cafe,” lunchtime at Brookgreen Gardens’ zoo.

She’s been feeding the birds, reptiles and mammals as a volunteer tour guide at Brookgreen for eight years but has been a regular visitor to the gardens since coming here in 1974 to direct exports for Georgetown Steel. She retired as marketing manager in 2003 when the mill closed temporarily. “I always wanted to do this when I was working,” Ebert said of the Brookgreen job. “Now that I’m retired, I need something to do.”

She’s a member of the Brookgreen volunteer advisory board and a mentor for some of the gardens’ 450 volunteers. “She was so informative and entertaining,” said Joan Scott, a member of the “Mother Nature’s Cafe” tour group from Florida last week.

Having grown up in Hamburg, a cultural center in Germany, entertainment has long been an interest. Her German accent plays well with Brookgreen’s tourists from all over the world.

The birds in the aviary get Ebert’s luncheon show off to a noisy start when she enters the gate with a plastic bucket containing smelt and a fatty fish for the bigger night herons called capelin. She throws a handful into the swamp water, and the herons and cattle egrets battle for a bite. “They make believe they never get any food,” Ebert said. “This morning they had two big buckets of food; this evening they get another three buckets. They are eating us out of house and home.”

Ebert tells visitors that river water flows in and out of the aviary’s swamp twice a day on the tides. The birds are contained by a giant net over the trees in the swamp supported by poles 90 feet in the air. There are a few turtles — she calls them yellow-bellied sliders — and a wood duck box inside the net. “The wood duck was almost extinct here in South Carolina because when they started planting rice they chopped down all the tupelo trees and all the bald cypress and took away their habitat,” Ebert said. “These guys are cavity nesters. The ladies of the plantation liked to decorate their hats with feathers of a male wood duck.”

Otters have two exhibits. One is glass-enclosed, allowing a view of how they swim on their stomachs and backs and use their paws to propel themselves and their tails as rudders. “Otters,” Ebert said, “are the only animals in the world that actually play.”

She said otters are particular about their playmates, and it took more than a month for the three in the glass enclosure to get used to each other. She said the mother of this bunch was raised by a Brookgreen zookeeper. He retired, and she refused to let anyone near when she had babies. “When Mr. Larry came to visit,” Ebert said, “she took out the babies one by one and showed them off. He was her daddy.”

Ebert feeds the otters in the zoo’s outdoor enclosure meatballs. They dive into the water to eat, but one brings his prize to the shore first. For the otters’ birthday party in March, she put a fish inside a balloon, filled it with water and froze it. When it was solid ice, she stripped off the balloon and had a toy for the otters. “It’s called enrichment,” she said. “It gives them something to do. Daddy otter decided the fastest way to get the fish was to roll his ball into the water.”

Alligators are just coming out of their winter hiatus, called torpor because they do not completely hibernate, Ebert said. They bury themselves in mud and come up occasionally to breathe. They don’t eat from mid-November until spring, she said. “Their entire system slows down,” she said. “Any time the air and water temperatures are below 60 degrees, they do not eat. The food would not be digested and would rot in their stomachs.”

There is a 13-foot male gator sunning himself for the tourists. Ebert tells them she entered the compound while he was sunning himself and measured him, but her smile belies the ruse. Gators are very dangerous, she tells the visitors. They can move quickly over short distances and they have 80 teeth to rip flesh from bone. “Don’t think you can outrun an alligator,” she said. The gators have learned to associate the sound of a clicker with food. That’s how grounds keepers get them to move to the far edge of their compound so they can trim the grass.

Foxes each get a meatball from Ebert during her visit. Sometimes they get an omnivore biscuit — she calls them power bars for animals — as well as vitamins. The grays get fish occasionally. Foxes are normally nocturnal. “Our guys,” she said, “are turned around.” Red and gray foxes live together in the compound. The grays have taught the reds how to climb trees. “The British came here for the Revolutionary War and found the gray fox and decided to have a fox hunt,” Ebert said. “They got their dogs and horses together and released the fox. Up in the tree he went, and that was the end of the fox hunt.”

When the veterinarian visits the fox compound, employees cover all the tree trunks with sheet metal to keep them from climbing.

She next visits two bald eagles who live in their own little aviary. Zookeepers or other volunteers enter the netting every day to change their water and feed the birds. “They are very, very shy birds,” Ebert said. “She’s been here 29 years, and they still act like somebody is going to kill them.” Though the eagles have both been injured, they still have talons as long as those of a black bear. “Imagine what that can do,” Ebert tells her audience. The female was shot in 1986 and had a wing amputated. The male was struck by a car 11 years ago. “Please don’t ever throw food on the road,” Ebert said, “because food attracts rats and mice and the birds of prey dive on them at up top 100 miles per hour. He was lucky that he got hit on a back road.”

At the next station is an owl. “He can turn his head 270 degrees,” Ebert said. “Owls have 14 vertebrates; mammals have seven. We can turn 90 degrees to each side, but as we get older it becomes more difficult.” She points out that an owl’s ears are not symmetrical. The right ear is higher than the left so it can hear what’s going on above and below.

Turkey vultures are next on the tour. “They are nature’s cleanup police,” Ebert said. “All they eat is dead meat, like road kill. They have no feathers on their heads. They dig into a dead deer on the road, so feathers would be all bloody.”

Brookgreen has a special permit to house all its birds of prey because they have been injured. “They can never be returned to the wild,” Ebert said. “If they got out they would die within 48 hours. First, they couldn’t find food, and second they would be food for somebody else.”

The final bird stop is the red-tailed hawk exhibit. “They are fed in the evenings,” Ebert said, “unless a snake or a squirrel wanders into their place.”

As the tour reaches its end near a lake, Ebert points out a fox squirrel. “Wanna-be raccoons, that’s what they look like to me,” she said. Matilda, a big fat squirrel, lives by the zoo kitchen. There are a pair of swans on the lake who have bonded and some Spanish goats on shore. The goat breeding program was more successful than anticipated, she said, and there’s a second herd on the other side of the deer savannah. “They are all very, very happy,” she said.

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