Cheryl Morris said she knew she was in trouble upon meeting a scruffy stray border collie a few years ago. She didn't need another dog, but “I just connected with her.”
Now 6-year-old Karma is the American Kennel Club 2013 Agility Champion in the 16-inch division.
A friend told Morris about the dog, who was at a rescue facility in Illinois. Morris and her husband, Danny, drove there to meet her and came home with the 3- or 4-month-old dog.
Morris decided she wanted to compete with Karma in agility. She owns and has trained smaller dogs (toy fox terriers) in agility, but preparing to compete with Karma meant getting in shape herself.
While the dog races through tunnels, leaps over fences, zigzags around poles and makes her way through obstacles such as seesaws and A-frames, the trainer is pretty much running along with the dog.
She almost didn't make the trip to Tulsa, Okla., in March for the Agility Championships because of bad weather. But Morris decided to take Karma to compete mostly because she wanted to observe the other dogs and their trainers.
“I wanted to watch the finals, and suddenly we're in the finals,” she said, and laughed. “It's crazy.”
In fairy-tale fashion, Karma aced the finals, running her course in 30.8 seconds.
“I think she knew she had won,” Morris said. “She's extremely sensitive to me. She knows what I'm feeling.”
Morris was feeling excited, proud, amazed and happy. She is no stranger to animals — all kinds of animals. In fact, she studies animal nutrition for a living.
In 2005 she joined the staff at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. As associate scientist of comparative nutrition, she created the first nutrition lab in the zoo's Grewcock Center for Conservation and Research, and she has led the way in research on diets for animals such as giraffes, carnivores (mainly big cats), bats, reptiles and amphibians.
“There has been very little research on raw meat diets for the cats,” she said. “We're looking at alternative proteins.”
Kidney disease in zoo animals is another focus of her research.
The zoo experience that probably intimidated her the most involved feeding a newborn giraffe whose mother had died, she said. Morris had to come up with a diet to replace the mother's milk, and it scared her to have a calf's life depend on her getting it right. She came up with a successful formula and contributed the information to a nationwide research effort by zoos that have giraffes.
As if dog training, competing and working at the zoo don't make her life hectic enough, she also is an assistant professor of comparative nutrition at Iowa State University in Ames, where she spends most of her time teaching and doing more amphibian diet research.
Living in two cities is wearing, Morris said, but she thinks her work in both locales is important. “There's not enough sharing of information among zoos and universities,” she said.
She likes teaching in the animal science department because she meets a lot of students who want to work with animals but aren't interested in becoming veterinarians. Morris helps them explore other career possibilities.
Her interest in animals is shared by her husband, who just happens to be the chief operating officer at the zoo. She and Danny Morris met at the zoo and were married there on Halloween in 2009.
“I love that holiday,” she said.
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