For 22-year-old Nick Norman, everything that his life is about today started with time spent exploring the woods and observing wildlife at his family’s property in St. Clair.
“That was my playground,” said Norman, son of Bob Norman, St. Clair, and Kathleen Portman, North Dakota. “I used to watch the deer. We had deer all of the time.”
His pets were the horses and wild Russian razorback boars that lived on the Norman family farm.
Now a college student on break from Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville where he’s working toward a degree in zoology, Norman is spending his summer completing an internship at the St. Louis Zoo. His job is studying animal behavior in the research department.
When he was a teenager, Norman was introduced to animal rescue and protective work during a trip to Costa Rica, where he watched volunteers helping endangered green sea turtles.
Years later, he returned to be one of those volunteers and, most recently, he spent five weeks in Branson interning at the National Tiger Sanctuary, where he worked with 14 tigers, one black leopard, one African lion and one mountain lion.
“I did everything from feeding, giving medications, to cleaning up poop,” said Norman. “I educated the public by giving tours of the sanctuary and teaching in the classroom about why big cats are in so much trouble.”
Saving the Sea Turtles
At 15, Norman decided to put his love and interest in animals to work for a good cause when his school, Pattonville High School, organized a student trip to Costa Rica. There they visited Tortuguero National Park, where a guide told him about the plight of the green sea turtles and how their lives are endangered — mostly by poachers, who steal the turtles’ eggs to sell for their mythical healing and anti-aging powers.
The trip made a deep impression on Norman and seems to have set the course for his future.
“We went snorkeling to see the coral reef, and this green sea turtle came up behind me.
“I reached out to touch it and it began pulling me through the water . . . we shared a connection,” Norman said, smiling.
Back on land, Norman couldn’t let go of the need to help these reptiles. He vowed to himself to do anything he could to help them, so four years later, at age 19, he went back to Costa Rica, this time as a volunteer with La Tortuga Feliz (“Happy Turtle”), a nonprofit group working to protect the turtles.
The pay rate was just $3 a night and the accommodations were on an island in the rainforest where volunteers had to pick much of their own food (coconuts, passion fruit and pineapple). Beans and rice were provided.
Norman’s role his first week there was to patrol the beach at night, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., and claim as many turtles as he could before the poachers did.
“If they claim a turtle, they will collect her eggs to sell... they believe the eggs have health benefits, like they can cure cancer,” said Norman. “They can sell one nest of eggs for about $500.”
When the volunteers claim the turtles, they too collect the eggs, but they bring them back to a protected hatchery where they rebuild the nests to match the size and shape of the nests their mothers had built back on the beach.
“The mothers are in a trance-like state when they are digging the hole,” said Norman, “so while she’s burying her eggs, we hurry and measure . . . and take notes so we can recreate it as exactly as possible.”
One adult female turtle can nest up to four times a season, and each nest will have 50 to 60 eggs, although not all of the eggs are fertile, Norman noted.
Norman spent one month volunteering with La Tortuga Feliz in summer 2009.
The opportunity to work at the National Tiger Sanctuary (www.nationaltigersanctuary.org) in Branson presented itself last year when Norman was a student at St. Louis Community College-Meramec. He gave a presentation on his work with the sea turtles in Costa Rica, and a fellow student turned out to be the intern coordinator at the tiger sanctuary.
He spent five weeks this May working at the sanctuary, “a not-for-profit organization established in 2000 to create a safe and protected environment to connect with the diversity of creation,” according to its website.
Much of Norman’s work there included educating the public about the animals and how they came to live at the sanctuary.
The animals are mostly rescues, some from entertainment shows or circuses but many from regular people who had purchased them as pets when they were still babies and seemed manageable enough. Then they grew.
“So they either try to find a place to take them, like a sanctuary, or they sell them on the black market,” said Norman.
These animals can bring as much as $50,000 and up, he said.
“They sell every part of it — the eyes, skin, whiskers, meat...”
Norman said big cats like these cannot be released back into the wild for several reasons. First, there is very little wild left because their habitats have been cut down or destroyed.
Still, these wild animals are dangerous to humans, which Norman would illustrate in the education tours by showing people a cracked bowling ball that one of the tigers had played with in his mouth like a jawbreaker.
The sanctuary in Branson goes through about 180 pounds of food a day feeding all of the big cats, said Norman. Each one eats 6 to 7 pounds a day in the summer and even more, over 10 pounds, in the winter.
The food is never processed or roadkill, and never frozen.
In addition to educational awareness tours, the sanctuary offers feeding tours where people can watch the staff feed the animals. Depending on what they are eating, you can hear the bones crunching, Norman noted.
The sanctuary gets its food for the animals largely from Tyson — the cats are partial to chicken, said Norman. Occasionally they have deer from local hunters. They also serve the cats beef and pork.
Norman said it’s interesting to note that the animals all had obvious personalities, just like people. Some were more shy, while others like being showered with attention and getting their picture taken.
“One was the runt of his litter, and he has that Napoleon syndrome,” said Norman. “And then our biggest cat, who’s 800 pounds, is a gentle giant. He’s got nothing to prove.”
Some of the animals have injuries or special conditions acquired from their previous owners and living situations, Norman noted. All of that, including personality, is taken into consideration at the sanctuary, he said.
“When animals come to live here, we take the time to get to know each and every one on a personal level, what upsets them, what they like/dislike, who they like the nature of their personalities,” the website reads.
“NTS does not train the animals nor do we make them do any tricks. We simply ask them when we need them to do something.”
The staff does everything it can to reduce the stress the animals feel, said Norman. This includes not going into the cages with the animals; not fasting the animals, but feeding them every day; and separating the animals during feedings so they don’t feel pressure to eat faster.
Internship at Zoo
Norman’s internship at the St. Louis Zoo has him studying things like mother-infant behaviors in hoofed animals, like the addax, kudo (the curly-horned animal in the Zoo logo) and oryx. He also studies the social behaviors of the Wild Somali Asses and Graves’ zebras (the only kind of zebra at the St. Louis Zoo).
Norman’s work includes watching the animals and making notes on when they do certain things, such as kick, threaten to kick, mount, nuzzle . . .
The research, he said, may help people understand better when, for example, a doe hides her fawn in the grass and leaves.
“People find the babies and think they’re abandoned, but that’s not the case,” said Norman.
But then there are other times when the doe has the fawn run with herd, he said.
“We’re trying to decipher who does what and why.”
Norman’s Zoo internship continues through August, when he will return to college. He has one year left at Northwestern Missouri State to complete his degree.
He’s not sure yet what kind of job he might look for after graduation and he knows he wants to continue to travel for more experience in rescuing and protecting animals, but he has a long-range goal in mind.
“Our family has about 150 acres of land in St. Clair that I’d like to turn into something... a nonprofit... an animal sanctuary.
“Jane Goodall has chimps. Steve Irwin had crocodiles. I haven’t found my animal yet.”