Continuing our tie-in with The Beachcomber’s 15th anniversary… This issue, the spotlight shines on longtime Emerald Coast “EDUtainer” Nonie. Thanks to Beachcomber contributing writer Nikki Hedrick for the suggestion!
1. Where do you currently call home?
I live in Fort Walton Beach with 28 other living creatures, 29 when you account for my awesome second mate and pilot Brandon—229 if you count all the pet roaches!
2. Where did you grow up?
St. Petersburg, Florida. Summers in Jacksonville.
3. Where did you develop your affinity for animals and our natural world?
Growing up in the semi-tropics of Florida, where there is no shortage of native and exotic critters, my family was always caring for wild and domestic creatures. There were dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs, flying squirrels, snakes, chickens, a turkey, a screech owl and even a sheep at one time. We spent time camping in Osceola National Forest where I was able to explore more natural surroundings other than the “green space” of the cemetery in my neighborhood that I considered my playground. There, I climbed trees, played in the pond with the Muscovy ducks, and built sheet forts amongst the invasive Australian pines with my girlfriends. We enjoyed our city neighborhood and found as many outdoor and nature adventures as we could, exploring, catching and raising tadpoles and fish from Joe’s Creek.
4. How did you get into animal “EDUtainment”?
In 1991, my senior year, I spent a career day at Busch Gardens shadowing zookeepers in the animal nursery. At the end of the day, they offered me a summer job. I had a great summer caring for a baby camel named Schwarzkopf (Gulf War reference) and various other exotic animals. I went to zoo school for college in Gainesville for two years and found my calling in zoo education and live performance presentations. I had side jobs in college at a snake farm and a bat farm. I had an awesome job working at LUBEE, a research facility dedicated to the coolest and biggest bats in the world.
After college I worked at various zoos, aquariums, vet’s offices and a children’s daycare, but couldn’t really click with employers. Both sides of my family are self-employed entrepreneurs so naturally I wanted to be independent, too. I needed a zoo of my own. I had a few personal pets and started perusing the classifieds for more. At one of my previous animal jobs, I was a birthday party host and realized I could do this myself. In 1997, I came up with the name Nonie’s Ark, purchased some party goods, started handing out brochures, and the rest is history. I am proud to say that I will be celebrating my 20th year in business in 2017.
5. What’s your favorite animal?
I love all my animals, just as any other mom does. I cannot choose a favorite, but as for the animal kingdom in general, I love bats the most.
6. Who are some of the people that influenced you?
In 5th grade, my teacher had a large python in her classroom. And in 7th grade. I discovered my mentor, Mr. Scull. His science classroom was full of animals, and I learned some hands-on husbandry skills by caring for his classroom zoo for two years during my elective period and by taking some home on weekends and breaks. He is quite a funny, quirky guy and I really enjoyed his “repertoire” with students—some of that can be experienced in my presentations. He was very honest and direct about biology and the cycles of life, etc. I used to beg to stay up to watch The Late Show when Joan Embry was a guest with animals from San Diego Zoo and grew up watching Tarzan, Marlin and Jim on Wild Kingdom and Jack Hanna.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I work 24 hours a day. When you live on the Ark, you always know when one of the crewmates needs something, especially when a majority of them are nocturnal. I really want to sleep in, but duty—or doody—calls. In the mornings, I catch up on emails, purchasing and marketing chores, etc. Admittedly, I do spend a lot of time online and on social media reading, learning, sharing, and I hope my friends and fans enjoy that. I feed, water, spot clean, socialize and release those that need free time and hugs by mid-morning. The rest of the day is usually mine to play unless I am out “EDUtaining” at a classroom, retirement home, festival, birthday party, etc.
When the sun goes down, another set of crewmates needs attention. I spend about 30 minutes cutting fresh fruit, feeding and socializing with them. I was trained in college and at LUBEE to keep enriching captive animals’ lives, so I try to come up with various toys, foods, scents and activities to stir the animals’ activity levels. The “toys” are usually things I find at thrift stores that they can tear up, hide in or poop all over and I can toss or recycle in the end.
8. Tell us about your mission to “EDUtain.”
Over the past 19 years, I have adopted well over 100 animals from unwanted and usually irresponsible situations. I am diligent and unapologetic about my mission to teach the children and adults I meet about responsible lifetime commitments to pet ownership. I focus on small exotic animals from pet stores. I also educate about some of our native animals. Some of my charges were stolen from the wild because a family wanted to “save” the animals. This truly is “killing with kindness.” If you see an animal crossing the road, such as a turtle, help it across the road and walk away. Wild animals deserve to be wild and pet animals should stay pets.
Some of the animals I rescue could very well have been set free by irresponsible pet owners trying to do the animal a favor and that is not the favor they need. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has a program for folks to relinquish their unwanted pets with amnesty at the Gulfarium on Sept. 24, and I will be there to showcase some of my crewmates. But I don’t have any more room on my Ark to take on any more. I know my limits and what my budget and time can afford. You can sign up to be an adopter through FWC if you can prove your knowledge on various animals’ needs.
9. Tell us about your Ark.
I have 28 fuzzy, feathered, scaled, cold and warm blooded family members at my house, but I only bring seven at a time in a tall “craft cart” of drawers to events. Luckily, all of them are small enough to fit comfortably in the drawers, which are equal to pet carriers that I used to have to haul around when I worked for other facilities. I figured out how to work smarter, not harder.
10. What’s a typical Nonie’s Ark show like?
I present for one hour to groups of 30 or less children and or adults and also offer a two-hour Hostess Package for parties. I generally bring a parrot, turtle, toad, tarantula, snake, hissing cockroach and a mammal. My website noniesark.com has more information about my presentations, party packages, animals, quotes and even a video of us in action.
11. Who are some of your favorite Beachcomberland musicians?
I love dancing to electronic house music with Doc Roc and DJ Joel—they lead me to the dance floors of places like Duck Duck and Fud’s Down Under Bar. I like to rock out, too. I recently caught two shows at Club LA by Kickstand Jenny and was very impressed. I love being mesmerized by Flow Tribe’s eye candy of retro attire and happy vibe. Members of New Earth Army and Heritage are past Nonie’s Ark customers, so a shout out to them is in order. I also really dig Tribe Zion and any band that covers TOOL.
12. What are some of your favorite Beachcomberland spots to eat, drink and shop?
My all-time favorite meal on the Emerald Coast is Grouper Pontchartrain at Louisiana Lagniappe. I rarely eat meat, but when I do, it better taste amazing and be worth the animal’s life. I consider myself a “flexitarian.” I will eat animals if they had the “best life possible” before being killed in the “most humane” way possible. I know, I should be vegan.
As far as drinking goes…I’m a southern girl with a sweet palate and I love muscadine wine thanks to my friends at Chautauqua Winery in DeFuniak Springs. I buy it by the case when I am up there and deliver it around the state to my family as gifts. They have good shopping there as well. Otherwise, I tend to shop as eco-friendly as I can and mostly spend my minimal budget at thrift stores. Nonie’s Ark is not a very profitable business, but it stays afloat as a hobby that pays for itself.
13. What have been some of your career highlights so far?
I love when customers and friends call me for advice about pet choices or wildlife issues. It lets me know that I have done my job. I also am starting to hear from past Nonie’s Ark customers who have grown up and are following a career in biological sciences. I have made an impression!
14. If you could time travel forward or back for a week, where would you go?
Earlier this year one of my best friends, Pete the coatimundi, passed away due to leukemia. I would love to go back a few years ago when he was the most comfortable and happy, stinking up our bed, wrestling with the dogs and digging in the yard for bugs. He was a rescue from a college student who just up and left him behind in his roommate’s house. He was the biggest personality on this Ark, and I am wiping tears while I type this… A week with Pete, yes, we would all love that.
15. The Beachcomber just reached a milestone—our 15th anniversary. How are you planning to celebrate this momentous occasion?
Celebrating with you! Tell me where the party is, and I’ll bring the party animals!