National Zookeeper Week has arrived

7/17/2014

My career in zoos began as a zookeeper. It has been a few years since I switched from zookeeper to zoo educator. I can still clearly remember all the long hours and hard days. I am especially reminded of my time as a zookeeper now that National Zookeeper Week has arrived (July 20 to 26). Many people don't realize what it takes to work in the zoo field, but many people also think they would love it. Zookeeping is a job of love and hard labor. The love for the job is the easiest part, but you have to endure the hard labor to pursue it.

My career in zoos began as a zookeeper. It has been a few years since I switched from zookeeper to zoo educator. I can still clearly remember all the long hours and hard days. I am especially reminded of my time as a zookeeper now that National Zookeeper Week has arrived (July 20 to 26). Many people don't realize what it takes to work in the zoo field, but many people also think they would love it. Zookeeping is a job of love and hard labor. The love for the job is the easiest part, but you have to endure the hard labor to pursue it.

Many people come to the zoo and only get a glimpse of a keeper scooping poop. And yes we do that. But that is not all. Of course for many people the portion where we have to clean up after the animals is the hardest to overcome. Keeping the exhibits clear of waste is extremely important not only because it keeps the exhibit looking nice, but it also is a key component in keeping the animals healthy. In addition to carrying buckets of waste to be disposed of, we are also carrying buckets of feed, doing yard work and repairing fencing. Most zookeepers you see can also toss 50- or 75-pound bales of hay with the best of them. And they are doing all of this work no matter what nature throws at them. Whether it is clear skies, raining, snowing, 110 degrees or below zero degrees, the work must get done. Speaking of the work must get done, every zookeeper you see also will be doing this work on holidays. The six years I was a zookeeper I never had a Christmas off. Even if you can make it through the hard work and the schedule, do you have the skills?

Zookeeping isn't just about feeding animals and shoveling up after them. Zookeepers are the animals' first line of defense against disease and injury. Unlike domestic animals, which have been under the care of humans for generations, wild animals are used to taking care of themselves and try their best to avoid showing any signs of injury. In nature, showing weakness attracts predators. Because of this trait the zookeepers have to be extra vigilant to notice any changes in an animal's behavior so that proper veterinary care can be given as soon as possible. This is also why it is important that the person "scooping the poop" is also the skilled caretaker. Many signs of physical or emotional stress to the body show up with a change in the gastrointestinal tract and the easiest way to notice this is .... the feces. All these observations go into records that are used to improve our ability to track these subtle changes. In addition, every keeper develops a certain amount of OCD. There are a lot of locks and precautions to keep the animals, the zookeepers and the public safe. Throughout the day they have to check and recheck and check again that they have maintained these safeties. However, even these skills only go so far without formal training.

This is where training and schooling comes in. Yes you notice changes, but without the proper education the observations don't mean as much. Proper training and education allow the zookeepers to know what to look out for and what could potentially cause certain changes in behavior. Whenever I discuss the training requirements with people, they are always amazed to find out that a bachelor's degree is generally required. But that is not all. To be eligible for a full-time job a zookeeper nowadays needs a bachelor's degree and up to two years of experience working with animals in a professional capacity. How does one get the years of experience? Volunteering and working for little to no money is usually the answer. Take my career path, for example. It started when I was in high school and I did some volunteering at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb. Then while in college to get my animal ecology degree from Iowa State University, I volunteered almost 20 hours a week at the Wildlife Care Clinic caring for sick and injured wildlife that were brought in. After that I was lucky and ended up with a job straight out of college. I say lucky because even with that experience most zookeepers have to do another one or two years of internships before getting a full-time job. And we go through all of this with the expectation of pay that is below a school teacher's beginning salary.

Even with all of the hard labor, long training and below average pay this profession is, in my opinion, one of the best jobs out there. But it isn't for everyone. This is truly a job of love and hardship. The zookeepers at Lee Richardson Zoo are what keeps our community's zoo a world class accredited facility. If you see a zookeeper, stop them and thank them for their hard work. Also, Saturday, July 26, we will be celebrating our zookeepers with discovery carts, thank you card tables, a zookeeper themed scavenger hunt and a zookeeper wish tree with donation ideas to help the zookeepers with the exhibits and animals (because the best way to make a zookeeper happy is to help keep their animals happy and healthy) from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Be sure to stop by and show your appreciation for the hard work the zookeepers have done to allow us all a unique experience in southwest Kansas.

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