Keys product finds her calling at North Florida wildlife center

kwadlow@keynoter.comJune 11, 2014 

Mary Ellen Petraska, formerly of Marathon, delivers lunch to one of the resident rhinos at the White Oak Conservation Center near Jacksonville. Petraska, with a degree in zoo-animal technology, is beginning her career with an internship at White Oak.


Every day, Mary Ellen Petraska knows piles of work -- very large piles -- await her.

Rhinoceros-size piles, in fact, produced by living, breathing, pile-producing rhinos.

"It's a lot of shoveling," chuckled Petraska, a Marathon High School graduate now pursuing her wildlife career as an intern at the White Oak Conservation Center near Jacksonville.

"We clean their pens, feed them and make sure they're healthy," Petraska said. 

"We take safety precautions but I'm wicked close to them. They get right up in your face," she said. "But they're so cute. I love them so much."

Chitwan, a Great One-Horn rhino, weighs in at about 5,600 pounds, Petraska noted. "Up to 6,000 pounds when she's pregnant."

The sprawling White Oak preserve has become renowned for breeding endangered species like the three species of rhinos it houses, and serves as a romance spot for rhinos from far-flung zoos. Even wild rhinos are temporarily brought from Africa to expand the gene pool.

Petraska won a coveted eight-month internship at the 7,400-acre facility after graduating from Sante Fe College in Gainesville with an associate's degree in zoo animal technology. She started at White Oak in mid-May.

"I've always had a passion for animals and my heart told me to go to Sante Fe," said Petraska, 22. "It's a very intensive and difficult program but it's probably the best decision I ever made."

She credits her years of volunteering with Kelly Grinter at the Marathon Wild Center for putting her on her career path. "I mainly want to work with birds and that's where it started," Petraska said.

At White Oak, she looks forward to working with the cassowary birds, a threatened Australian species. "They're big, black raptors that look like velociraptors," Petraska said. "Amazing birds, huge and dangerous. They're my favorite."

The White Oak Conservation Center rehabilitates injured Florida panthers that are released when healthy, and provides a home for a large group of cheetahs that helps ensure survival of the species.

Petraska has gotten to know Ansari and Omie, two formerly domestic cheetahs still accompanied by their six-year companion, an Anatolian shepherd dog.

On a "cheetah run," Petraska said, the big cats are released to pursue a ball pulled down a line at high speed. Cheetahs, the world's fastest land animal, hit speeds of more than 60 mph.

"It shows how fast they can run. It's one of the truly amazing things you'll ever see," Petraska said. "Every day has been really exciting."

She also works with White Oak's resident antelopes, gazelles, wild African cows and more.

Petraska plans to focus her career on preserving endangered species through work with conservation groups that "put animals back into the wild."

"It's so important to keep the animals alive," she said. "Working in Africa would be awesome."

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