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Vounteerism: Lara family makes work at the Riverside Zoo a family affair

March 18, 2018 GMT

SCOTTSBLUFF — Alice Lara takes out fresh red meat and begins cutting it up on the counter of the kitchen at Riverside Discovery Center. Each chunk is placed in a different container for one of the cats at the zoo. Kim Prouty, Lara’s sister, is at another station in the kitchen cutting raw vegetables and fruit for several animals.

Most of the Lara family began working at the zoo as volunteers. In 2013, Lara was looking for something to get her out of the house. She volunteered as a docent, which she still does. She helped her husband, Danny Lara, with mowing, cleaning sidewalks and raking leaves.

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“I volunteered for a year and a half,” Lara said. “Eventually, they needed another person for maintenance and asked if I would like to come on.”

After coming on staff, learned she really enjoys making the diets for the animals. Each portion of food is weighed every day to make sure the animals have their optimum meals.

Produce is delivered from Panhandle COOP’s Mainstreet Market. Lara can eyeball the sizes of the produce so they are manageable for the animal that receives it. The reptiles receive smaller chunks while Tyke the raccoon and the squirrel monkeys get pieces somewhere in between.

“Sarah and Scooter (the chimpanzees) get a whole pear and banana,” Lara said. “The bears get theirs cut in half so they last a little longer.”

Creating the meals for the animals is a relaxing task for Lara. It’s time she gets to spend alone, just working. She recently learned how to dress a goose and take off its feet. If there are enough geese, the swift foxes, black leopard, bobcat and Eurasian lynx will all get a share.

“I really like ordering the crickets and most of the time I place the order for rats,” Lara said.

Twin City Pack in Gering donates bones and hearts for the cats.

“Those kind of donations are a big help and we really appreciate it,” Lara said.

Geese and deer are donated by local hunters, who field dress the animals before delivering them to the zoo.

“When we don’t have bones from Twin City, we will give the animals a deer leg,” Lara said.

The raptors at the zoo receive rats on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Each raptor has its own schedule. There is a calendar on the wall that lists which animal eats what, which days they are fed and which day they fast. Lara insists the rats are not difficult to deal with. They’re just smelly.

During the summer, donations of produce arrive as local gardeners realize they have planted too much food.

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“Any time anyone wants to donate, we can accept it,” Lara said. “We accept deer, geese, duck, and the livers and hearts of field animals from hunting.

Lara makes the diets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Friday, she makes three days worth of food.

“Tuesday and Saturday are catch up days to do other things,” Lara said.

Those other things include everything from mowing to cleaning bathrooms to maintenance and repairs. Lara is also in charge of making sure community service workers have something to do when they arrive.

Although her job may seem repetitious, Lara never does the same thing at the same time every day. She helps set up tables and chairs for events and design and set up for big events like Spooktacular and the Haunted Museum, which can shift her daily schedule.

“Every day is a different thing,” Lara said. “There are always lots of different obstacles.”

One on particular day, Danny Lara’s planned jobs for the day has to be moved around. A window in the chimpanzee indoor enclosure needs to be repaired. He must be on site while Thompson Glass removes the cracked window and replaces it.

Some days, Danny Lara is working in an area and is called out to something else. When this happens, safety is a priority.

“You have to pack up and secure the area,” Danny Lara said. “You never know if you will be gone five minutes or two days.”

Danny Lara can be seen working on a variety of tasks at the zoo. He mends fences, fixes sprinklers and unplugs drains. When Zoo Director Anthony Mason needed a large zoo sign out in front of Riverside Discovery Center, the Laras got together and made it happen.

After seeing an article in the paper for a maintenance position at the zoo, Danny Lara applied for the job. That was six years ago. He was working in construction and looking for something different. A few years later he was offered another job, which he took, but Danny Lara was soon back at the zoo.

“When I left, nothing was getting done,” Danny Lara said. “I enjoy working here, so I came back.”

Danny Lara Jr., who works full-time at Scottsbluff Rehab, also works part-time at the zoo, during the weekends and at events. It doesn’t matter if it’s a niece or brother, if they’re related to the Laras, they will probably be volunteering their time at the zoo. Even family members who are on staff give extra hours of their time volunteering to make the zoo better.

Valencia Lara began volunteering at the zoo several years ago. Although she now works in the gift shop, she still volunteers her spare time at the zoo. In October 2017, she spent countless volunteer hours preparing for the zoo’s signature event, Spooktacular, and the Night at the Haunted Museum.

Johnny and Miguel Lara are also often seen helping around the zoo.

While he watches the glass being replaced, Danny Lara notes that he has another project to finish in the shop and he needs to come up with new designs for the lids on the drains to prevent them from clogging.

Danny Lara doesn’t have any favorite part to his job. As long as he is busy, he’s happy. He has a list of things that need to be worked on, but he can be called away on something at a moment’s notice.

“Around here, you can’t schedule anything,” Danny Lara said. “Nothing ever goes according to plan.”

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