Aviary's Grendzinski helps keep her flock healthy and happy

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, 7:34 p.m.

Killer's squawking reverberates through the Tropical Forest room as a visitor tries to coax a “hello” from the determined green-winged macaw.

A few feet away, the bird's winged buddy Benito, a Hyacinth macaw, appears disinterested. But the two bachelor birds at the National Aviary on the North Side always seem to keep an eye on what the other is doing.

A parental smile darts across Teri Grendzinski's face as the familiar scene unfolds in front of her. The supervisor of animal programs also may be recalling that moment, 19 years ago, when she first came to the aviary and Killer, now 34, stepped onto her hand at her invitation.

“We are still friends,” says the Ross resident, who grew up in McCandless.

Welcome to Grendzinski's world, where her “friends” can be found everywhere, grateful for her attentive, patient care.

There's good reason, says her former boss, Steven Sarro, who was the aviary's director of animal programs before taking his current position as curator at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

“She is an exceptional animal person, dedicated, dependable and thoughtful,” he says. “She worked very well as my right arm and go-to person while I was at the aviary.”

Her “historic knowledge” of the facility is invaluable, he says.

Early start

Grendzinski has been at the aviary since graduating from Penn State University in 1993 with a bachelor of science degree in animal bioscience.

“The aviary, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, is really a gem, the only facility of our kind in the entire country,” she says. She began working there shortly after it became a private institution, and just before it was declared the National Aviary by an act of Congress.

Grendzinski, 41, is amazed at its growth since her arrival, “We have great new exhibits, including the penguins and grasslands, and some really cool interactive encounters. We have also bred many species,” she says.

She has loved animals as long as she can remember, growing up with dogs and cats and discovering a talent, through her dog, for training animals. Volunteering at the Pittsburgh Zoo while at North Allegheny High School, where she graduated in 1989, opened her eyes to careers with animals.

Her interest in birds developed at the aviary. “I like how closely we get to work with most of them,” she says. “I like making sure that the animals I take care of are happy and healthy. The major challenge is that sometimes things do not go as planned.”

Ericka Douglass, aviary marketing associate, praises the passion Grendzinski brings to her work. “The birds' care and well-being are her No. 1 priority, and she is dedicated to their happiness and comfort,” she says. “She is a great mentor to the interns and the staff she manages.”

Grendzinski says she learns something new every day, either by observing the birds or doing research about them. “I love getting a chance to just stand in an exhibit and watch what the birds are doing,” she says.

They teach her patience and better communication skills, she says.

“I try to be sensitive to their needs and try to read their body language to tell if they are comfortable,” she says. She also tries to learn as much as she can about them as a species and an individual so she can provide the most appropriate care.

She enjoys using what she learns to educate visitors. “We get to work with some pretty cool animals and getting to share them, and their stories, with people is pretty cool,” she says.

She did not think that she would be at the aviary for as long as she has been, celebrating 20 years next summer. “But, because it is a small facility, I have had many different roles over the years as my interests have changed,” she says.

It's definitely more than just a job for Grendzinski.

“Caring for birds and animals is her vocation,” says longtime friend Lori Melton of Forest Hills, a third-grade teacher at St. Joseph School, Verona. “Teri is amazing. She is so knowledgeable about all of the birds she cares for.

“She knows a great deal about most animals. But, more than that, she's one of the most sensible, down-to-earth people I know, always very calm and rational, very caring and very modest about her accomplishments and successes. Teri is often helping someone and not saying too much about it.”

The aviary job was clearly a perfect fit for her, Melton says.

It was never about money for her, says Alaina Hermanowski of Shaler, who has been her friend since marching band in high school. “She loves animals and was fortunate enough to be able to find a job in her hometown, doing what she enjoys.”

Caring for her flock

As supervisor of animal programs, Grendzinski is responsible for overseeing the animals that live in the exhibits and the breeding center on the grounds. She also takes care of the penguins, eagles, toucans and sloth, and coordinates the enrichment and training of the exhibit animals.

“I also do many up-close-and-personal encounters for our guests with our penguins and some of our other birds,” she says.

A benchmark moment came when she trained the Steller's sea eagles to shift off exhibit for maintenance. Aleutia, the female eagle, does not like visitors in her enclosure.

“She is very large and potentially dangerous. We decided it would be safer to shift her out of the exhibit so we could safely go in and clean,” says Grendzinski, who added a sliding door to an area behind their residence. “She is very wary of new situations and changes to her enclosure and routine. When she started coming back in when we asked her to, it was pretty exciting.”

Hand-raising a snowy owl named Gryphon and the aviary's first baby penguins were freeze-frame moments for her. “I really enjoy raising the babies. I have never wanted children, but I am a sucker for baby birds,” she says. “They grow up so quickly that every day is different, and as new babies they are such strange-looking little creatures.

“I like the fact that some birds can live a very long time, and I might get to work my whole career with them,” she says. Killer and Benito, for example, potentially can live up to 60 years or more.

“It is really hard to lose one of these really long-lived birds. You form an attachment to them,” Grendzinski says. Gryphon, hatched in 1994, died a number of years ago.

The animal supervisor was part of the team that brought the first penguin, Stanley, at 6 weeks old, to the aviary in 2001.

“Teri played a strong role in the hatching and caring of our first penguin chicks, Tribby and Kaden, this year, which was a milestone in aviary history,” Douglass says.

In recent years, penguins seem to have become the rock stars of the bird world.

“I think that people relate to penguins because of their shape. They walk very upright, much like people,” she says. “They are also unusual in that they are birds, but don't fly, and their colors are quite striking. They are also quite active and social, so, in an exhibit like ours, there is always something going on.”

It's not unlike watching a soap opera, she says.

“They are quite curious, but not really bright. They are really attracted to movement, so anytime people come up to the windows they tend to react,” Grendzinski says. “Because most of our birds were raised by people, they tend to look at us as big, funny-looking penguins, and treat us that way. They do seem to like to hang out with us, but they don't really like to be petted or touched.”

They are plenty of fun to observe, she says. “I love watching our visitors' reaction to them,” she says.

Such experiences are part of the appeal of an aviary, she suggests. “Most zoos have a bird collection within their facility, but the birds often get overlooked because people get so into the big animals,” she says. “Being able to showcase just birds lets us really tell their stories and lets people know why they are important.”

She would like to help expand the aviary's collection “into something world-class.” That involves increasing that collection and focusing on breeding more species. “We can do this by working with other zoos and breeding programs,” she says. “Having birds that visitors feel a connection to is important as well.”

Grendzinski believes the National Aviary is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours. “We have interactive feedings and other programs (including one where marriage proposals can be made in front of the penguins). The big rooms are also just really cool places to sit down and just hang out with the birds,” she says. “On a yucky winter day, the aviary is a bit of the tropics right in the middle of Pittsburgh.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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