Posts tagged ‘zoo’

Types of Zoo Keepers

Zoo keeping seems to select for a certain type of human. Not surprisingly, zookeepers are animal lovers first and foremost. That seems reasonable and quite frankly, expected, but not in a well balanced, socially healthy sort of way. Please, understand, this is a self-deprecating comment because I have dedicated my life to taking care of animals in zoos and sanctuaries. That being said, zookeepers are a group of people who do not tend to thrive in interpersonal relations. They feel disenfranchised or separated from humanity and find solace in the satisfaction of being needed unconditionally by animals. Some keepers will protest this assertion, but those are the ones that will illustrate my point. There are varying degrees to this hypothesis, which, oddly, directly corresponds to the animals for which the keeper cares.
There is a distinct correlation between how this is expressed and how the animal the keeper cares for behaves. Cat keepers, for example, tend to keep to themselves and are quietly watching and gathering information about those around them. They are not extroverts and you may think they don’t like you at first. Once they have fully assessed a situation and person and feel comfortable, they are very gregarious and pleasant people to be around, much like the felines for which they care.
Bird keepers are pleasant, happy, whistle while you work type of people. They are the first to greet a new person and you can almost see them fluff up their feather when they are happy and excited, which is often. You will find the odd, bird of prey type bird keeper. For details on their personalities see the reptile keeper description.
Reptile keepers may be the hardest nuts to crack. They are loners and perhaps the most disenfranchised of all keepers. The least interested in humans and their wacked out methods, reptile keepers do not suffer fools or anything warm blooded for that matter. They are the geniuses of the keeper world. Their intelligence seems to naturally separate them from the folly of most humans and they find solace in the predictable world of reptiles. Working with reptiles is predictable and oddly enough, safe. You wouldn’t think working with poisonous snakes as safe, and it isn’t if you’re a bunny lover. But with reptiles you know the ground rules and they are not going to change. They are what they are and you know what to expect. You appreciate them for all of their scary, slithering, poisonous “faults” and you never have to worry about them pretending to be your friend one minute then striking at you the next. That is a trait of the primates, which, incidentally, may be why most reptile keepers can’t stand the primate department. I’ve yet to meet a reptile keeper who likes primates.
Oh the primate keepers. I know this group intimately, having focused my career on non-human primates. The most difficulty primate keepers have is with the human primates, not so much their non-human charges. Socially aware, conniving and calculating, primate keepers are among the least trust worthy people in a professional setting. The book by famous and world renowned primatologist, Frans DeWall called, Chimpanzee Politics, sums up what it’s like to be a primate keeper. The book is about the politics within a chimpanzee group, but the same basic principles apply to being a primate keeper. Initially gregarious and engaging, the primate keeper is constantly watching for the sub text, eyeing out the power players and how to align themselves with those power players or how to over throw those power players. If you are new to the business, and you would have to be to not know this, never trust another primate keeper no matter how nice and helpful they may be. If you do, the last words you may hear yourself speak are, e too Brute. All that being said, being a primate keeper is wonderful if you can stay alert to the political climate within your department. Yes, I speak from experience of being too naïve myself, but that does not detract me from enjoying having been a primate keeper. I just know the non-human primates are not the only ones for whom you must watch out.
Zoo keepers are some of the most amazing people you will ever meet, even if they may not much care for the human species as much as they do their animals. There are plenty of people out there looking after the interests of other people. It takes a special few, with all their eccentricities to take care of animals. Which keeper type fits you the best? Did your natural affinity fit into the groups above? You would be surprised.


How To Become A Zoo Keeper

I’ll start with the cliché, so you want to be a zoo keeper.  Ok, let’s say you do in that you meet the one essential pre-requisite- a love for animals.  Yes, that is a good place to start, but there are many fields that can begin with that determination.  Whether becoming a zoo keeper is right for you depends on your personality, professional goals, salary requirements, schedule and how hard you want to work.  Of course these are only a few of the considerations needed to decide if zoo keeping is right for you.

Just because you love animals doesn’t mean you will be a good keeper.  There are several ways to work with or around animals and zoo keeping may not be for you.  Interning or volunteering will help you see what being a zoo keeper is really like and help you decide if you really want to be a zoo keeper.  You can volunteer as a keeper aide in most zoos, which means you get to work side by side with zoo keepers behind the scenes.  Now, you will not get to pet, touch or otherwise put yourself in a situation to lose digits or limbs, but you will be in close proximity to animals and as a bonus, you get to pick up their poop(the animal’s, not the keeper’s, though you do have to take a little crap off them).   If you have a youngster that has interest in becoming a zoo keeper there are junior zoo keeper and job shadowing programs at most zoos.  The programs may go by different names, but if you contact the education department they can give you the appropriate information. 

As a zoo keeper you get to do a lot of cool things with animals, but you also get to clean up after them.  It’s a physically and emotionally demanding field that just doesn’t suit all animal lovers.  You may do better loving animals as a veterinarian, wildlife biologist, vet tech or park ranger.  It all depends on the conditions in which you like to work, what kind of education you have or want to pursue, how much you want to make and the schedule you want to work.  Zoo keepers do not make much money, around $30,000 give or take, depending on the market the zoo is in and whether it is privately owned or run by the city.  You typically get excellent benefits though.  Another consideration is your schedule.  Zoo keepers never get weekends off.  If you have seniority you might get Friday/Saturday or Sunday/Monday but typically it’s going to be two other consecutive days and you don’t get holidays off.  The zoo keeping field is highly competitive with a finite number of jobs available on the whole and even more so as you begin to specialize.  Typically a zookeeper takes the first job they can get, regardless of what animal or group of animals for which the position cares.  From there the keeper either develops an affinity for that group of animals and seeks a job specific to them later or takes the experience and searches out a job that does work with the animal to which the keeper wishes to dedicate their career.  Like I said, zookeeper jobs are limited which makes them highly competitive so you have to be prepared to move away after college if the only job you can get is across the country.  But how does one become a zoo keeper?

Some of you may be surprised to know that it is increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get hired as a keeper without a college degree.  Yes, you must have a degree to clean up poop.  My favorite story in relation to this is a friend, who was a PhD candidate in zoology. She was cleaning a pool at the zoo when a family walked by.  The father said to his daughter, see, this is why it is important you get a college degree.  In the old days, someone with an affinity for animals and a strong work ethic need only apply and for good measure know someone already working there.  These days a degree in the life sciences is requisite to even get your resume in front of the powers that be.  Without the basic requirements your resume will not even get past human resources.  There are exceptions that grant experience to replace college credit on a year to year basis, but that is typically AZA (American Association of Zoos and aquariums) experience.  People who take the experience route, like me, typically begin at non-AZA facilities or small AZA zoos.  It makes it difficult to convince those doing the hiring that your experience can translate to the high standards at an AZA accredited zoo.  It can be done, but it takes a lot of hard work.  Increasingly, zoos want a fresh college graduate who has completed an internship at a zoo, possibly even their zoo.  No amount of reading Jane Goodall books will prepare you for the amazing behavioral complexity of working with chimpanzees though.  College doesn’t teach you animal training by means of positive reinforcement, which will be a standard responsibility on a daily basis, nor does it teach you how to observe behavior in such a way that you can tell when an animal is sick or agitated- that comes with experience.  A college degree does however open the door to the zoo world.  There are schools that train you specifically to be a zoo keeper.  If you are absolutely sure zoo keeping is for you, this may be a good route.  For a good list of schools that will aid you in achieving a degree that will help you get hired as a zoo keeper go to .  This is the American Association of Zoo Keepers website and a wonderful resource for those who want to learn from keepers about what keepers do.  You can also check out the AZA website at  At the top of the page you will see a link for jobs.  Zoos post open jobs and internships there daily. 

If you want to be a zoo keeper, you really need to find out what exactly zoo keepers do, not just what you think they do.  Volunteer or apply for an internship and get experience of the day to day responsibilities of a keeper.  If you are already in college majoring in a life science, check out the internship program in your respective department, they may have a program already set up with your local zoo.  Check the AZA website for internships over the summer and have a great experience traveling to a different state for the summer and working with animals.  If you have already graduated and have a degree in accounting, worry not.  Volunteer at the zoo in which you desire to work, in the department with the animals in which you have an affinity and build up some experience.  Most zoos will consider volunteer experience when hiring a keeper position.  It helps when you are applying to the zoo at which you volunteered if volunteer experience is all you have.  The important thing is to build experience.

 If you’ve done your research and you’ve decided that being a zoo keeper is absolutely right for you, then start taking the steps to make it happen.  Being a zoo keeper is one of the most unique jobs out there.  If it’s right for you, it can be the most amazing experience of your life.  If you have questions or are interested in getting more information and resources on becoming or being a zoo keeper, please leave a comment below and I will address your question as quickly as possible.

Bowling For Rhinos

This is a wonderful time of year! Not just becuase the pools are open, the weather is warmer, days are longer and school is getting out. No, it’s a wonderful time of year because your local AZA zoo will be holding their Bowling for Rhinos events.

Bowling for Rhinos is an annual fundraising event that raises funds for rhino conservation in the wild. The money goes directly to rhino reserves and national parks in India, Africa and Indonesia for rhino conservation. That can be for manning rhino patrol units for teams that protect rhinos from poachers to money for medicine and treatment of rhinos.

Your participation in Bowling for Rhinos is a fun way to get involved. Spend an afternoon bowling with your family or attend an evening event and bowl with friends and coworkers. You can buy raffle tickets and even win door prizes. Can’t make your local event? Send a donation or donate a product you sell for a door prize or raffle item. If you want to be more involved, become a sponsor and get signage put up at the event that tells people you and your company support not only your local zoo but conservation across the planet.

Stay tuned for specific dates of events in your city! In the mean time check the website of your zoo and see how you can participate.

Noah’s Ark or How I Became a Zoo Keeper

It seems apropos that the first monkey I worked with was named Noah, biblically the first zoo keeper ever and the first conservationist.  Noah, the monkey, not the biblical figure, was the first non-human primate I ever saw up close and without a barrier.  Imagine that for a moment.  You’ve spent your life enamored with primates and only seeing them through glass or across a wide barrier and then, suddenly, in front of you sits a tiny infant capuchin monkey bouncing around and burrowing through someone’s hair.  From that moment on I was a part of Noah’s care team and assisted in hand rearing several other capuchins while there.  Noah though was my first love.  We all know the biblical story despite religious affiliation.  Noah built the ark on God’s command to prepare for a great flood.  Noah, looking a fool building an ark for an impending flood in the middle of a great drought, did as he was told.  But he wasn’t told to merely save himself and his family.  He took two of every animal.  Let’s not get into the debate whether this is parable or literal or even the logistics of saving two of every species, presumable the land dwelling species.   For our purposes here the fact that a story exists as parable or otherwise to save two of every species makes Noah, as a historical or fictional character-and perhaps even then it’s not black or white, our first true conservationist.  Why save two of every species?  Our first species survival plan was born within the walls of Noah’s ark. 

An AZA zoo(American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) adheres to strict reproductive protocols and actually has specific breeding recommendations for endangered species.  That means that committees within the AZA called SSP’s or species survival programs, determines the genetic value and representation of every animal in a given species in every AZA accredited zoo across the country and determines which individuals can breed with other individuals, if at all.  Most animals at modern zoos are not owned by those institutions but are on loan from other facilities for breeding purposes. That loan may well last the duration of that animal’s life, but it depends on the gene pool and how well represented each individual’s genes in the population are at the time.  If the participating zoo does not recognize and adhere to the breeding recommendations of the SSP, the facility risks having their animals placed elsewhere.  Even animals that are not endangered require responsible breeding protocols to ensure the health and husbandry of the existing population at a given zoo.  Unfortunately, at my first zoo, this was not the case. 

At my first zoo, indiscriminate breeding was the protocol with little concern for who was breeding whom, how often and whether there was space and resources for more babies.  In fact, as these hand reared babies became too old to handle and were placed in groups, new babies were needed for “outreach”.  Outreach animals are animals that are taken off site to schools, birthday parties and festivals to use as “ambassadors” for a conservation message.  In the case of primates, as was mentioned in the last post, hand raised females typically will not care for their offspring, thus making it necessary to hand rear their babies.  So, this became a nice cycle for the zoo to continually have cute baby primates to use as advertisement for the zoo.  Sure, we preached how monkeys do not make good pets, but it seemed a contradiction in terms as we held a precious little monkey in a diaper drinking from a bottle.  I value the experiences I had at this first zoo.  They are certainly experiences I would not have been a part of had I taken a more traditional route to my zoo keeping career.  The route, traditional or otherwise, to becoming a zoo keeper I will address in a separate post, but suffice it to say that mine was old school. 

Noah, the biblical figure, was charged with saving two of each species and as we have agreed upon suspended disbelief in the logistics of accomplishing such a task, divine intervention notwithstanding, we see an early concern in the conservation of species.  Now, the same difficulties in population genetics that confronted the offspring of Adam and Eve seem to be a recurring theme in the two surviving members of each species.  Somehow though we all waded into to the deeper waters of the shallow end of our respective gene pools and became obviously successful organisms as evidenced by the fact we exist at all.  The point to it all is that conservation has been an essential part of our make up as humans and our history.  Cultures and the creation stories of religions across the globe have reverence for animals and their conservation in some respect.  As an aside, when I refer to animals I do not believe humans any less animal, but is easier to refrain from the delineation of non-human versus human animals.  Please know that I do in fact understand that humans are animals and not some superior, being above the kingdom of animalia.  We are animals, albeit very successful ones in a top of the food chain kind of way, for now anyway. 

Humans in their present incarnation are only about 200,000 years old.  The emergence of the first anatomically modern humans, along with the increase in brain size transformed the bipedal primate into a fully fledged member of the top of the food chain.  It was but 10-12,000 years ago that we domesticated ourselves and began settling into semi permanent camps which allowed us to grow crops and keep animals rather than hunt and gather in a nomadic way.  We began to age because the old could stay put and work and those who were sick and injured could recover in camp rather than be left for dead as the rest of the group continued to follow the food.  When we domesticated ourselves, we domesticated animals as well.  We became zoo keepers.  Proper animal husbandry determined whether we lived or died, flourished or floundered.  The same is true today as it was then and as it was with Noah.

Noah, the non-human primate, was my introduction into being a zoo keeper- a steward.  I felt the tiny hands of a non-human primate pat my face and wrap his tail around my arm.  I was hooked in a way that mothers are when they first hold their own infants.  We spoke a common primate language that is translated through eye contact and facial expression that says- I need you.  Biblical Noah did not just save his family upon that ark.  It would have meant less work and ridicule if he only needed to build a boat big enough for his family.  He was commanded to build a giant ark that would offer sanctuary to the animals that inhabited the world.  Noah was chosen as the first zoo keeper and conservationist.  Noah the monkey baptized me in the profession of being a zoo keeper.

Ass Backwards On A Llama

Close your eyes and picture a llama.  It can be an alpaca if that’s what pops into your head, odds are you didn’t realize you were picturing the wrong thing to begin with.  As long as you’re picturing a thickly furred spitting a-hole, you’re in the ball park.  I love animals, great and small, so please do not be offended I called llamas and their brethren, alpacas, a-holes.  If you’ve ever met one, you know what I’m talking about.  We had several at my first zoo and while I have stories that involve a few of them, today I reference Romeo.  Like many Romeo’s out there, this guy was well aware of his standing as head honcho in the herd and didn’t mind aiming a kick in your general vicinity if he felt offended or merely bored-more than likely just bored.  He was in the petting zoo with a couple of females that seemed to suffice in keeping him well established in his full estimation of his own greatness.  Everyone knows to be on one’s guard when working with cougars or bears, it’s the herbivores you have to look out for.  They lull you with their victimized woe is me, I’m a prey animal, sob story and when they’ve fully distracted you into a sense of security, they stomp, trample and otherwise make their best attempt at proving to the world they are not only one notch above grass on the food chain.  Romeo was such an herbivore.

Now, Romeo resided in the barnyard which was a charming little pit stop along the guided tour where zoo guests could purchase food and hand feed goats, miniature horses and llamas.  There was a well placed sign on the llama yard that warned, spit happens, but oddly, it was always a surprise when it actually did.  Here’s a little insider information for your next llama or alpaca encounter: If they’ve laid their ears back, you’re about to get it.  On the particular day though that I recount to you, the zoo was slow and there were no people for whom Romeo could release his latent insecurities at being an herbivore.  I wasn’t actually the barnyard keeper but I fed the barnyard on the rounds of feeding my own animals.  Like I said, herbivores are not to be trusted, but at the end of a long day and wanting to get my feeding done, I found myself in that most dangerous of places a zookeeper never wants to find herself, autopilot.  Typically, upon feeding Romeo’s group you had to feed him by the gate first so he would stay calm and let you feed and hay in the lean to for the girls.  You didn’t want to be in that lean to with a hungry llama shoving everyone around to be the first to eat.  I opened the gate and Romeo’s bowl was pushed up against the fence immediately to the right of the gate.  I poured his food in his bowl and he, being eager to eat as it was a slow day without guest hand feeding him, immediately dropped his head to begin.  Now, the smart thing was to walk around behind Romeo, giving him plenty of space not to kick at me and walk into the lean to behind and feed the girls.  But again, at the end of a long day and eager to be done I decided to shave off 10 seconds or so.  Romeo’s bowl sat on the ground, up against the fence, with Romeo’s long neck bent down so he could eat.  I decided that I could step just over his head and take a short cut to the lean to so I could feed the girls.  So, I did.  Unfortunately, just as I stepped my foot over, Romeo lifted up his head quickly with his neck between my legs, flinging me onto his back.  It was so effortless how he tossed me up.  The llamas had not been sheered so I found purchase in the fur on his rump and wrapped my knees around his neck.  I am lying face down, backwards, on a llama that tolerates me at best.  Romeo, highly offended at my position on his back began bucking and kicking.  All I can do is hang on for dear life and squeeze his neck with my legs even harder and clench my fists even more into his ass while I look frantically for a place to dismount.  I was sure if I let go I was going to break a leg or get trampled once I hit the ground.  I don’t know how long the ride lasted but I somehow popped off and I can’t even tell you if I landed on my feet or on my face.  I just remember hustling out of the llama yard stunned and then hysterical at how hilarious my experience was. 

Romeo and I were never what you would call friends after that, but he left me alone and I took the long way round.  Being a zookeeper is not an easy task.  It’s a lot of hard work and your mind must be constantly engaged and trying to out-think the animals, even the llamas.  The moment you let your guard down, or try to take a short cut, you’re riding ass backwards on a llama.

The Curious Primate

Let’s begin with saying that monkeys have tails, apes do not.  This means the devastating news for many is that chimpanzees are not monkeys.  Yes, this may take some getting used to, but as a primate keeper I am obliged to insist you get this distinction so I can retain my sanity and not have to go ape shit if you call a chimp a monkey in front of me.  This is just a necessary disclaimer before we go any further together.  This is your only prerequisite for reading this blog.  Good, let’s begin.

I always knew I wanted to take care of animals.  I’ve known it since knowing was known in my little world.  Oddly enough I never had a fascination with Curious George.  What’s curious is that he is an amalgam of primates rather than an actual primate.  A literal translation of what most people view primates to be.  Throw in the size of a capuchin monkey, think the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, the face of a chimpanzee and the tail of a Monkey, again, a capuchin perhaps, and anthropomorphized enough to resemble humans.  Anthropomorphism is a big word zoo keepers and other animal professionals use to describe and avoid the curious tendency for humans to project upon non-human animals human traits, thoughts and emotions. Curious George is an exact replica of what most people think of primates.  You are all disturbingly mislead as to what a primate actually is.  If you are reading this text, you’re a primate.  I’m not making that up to be clever.  In the animal kingdom, we’re primates.  Based on the taxanomic system of categorizing animals in such a way that animals with biological similarities are categorized from broad to specific traits from Kingdom, which includes all animals, to species which are so similar they can actually breed with one another.  Humans share enough distinguishing characteristics to be categorized in the order of primates.  Unless it’s happening in some Chinese test tube, humans and chimps cannot reproduce together so relax, I’m not calling you a chimpanzee.  I’m not even saying we descended from chimpanzees.  Sure, we had a common ancestor six million years ago, but they went their way and we went our way.  I think God must have had pity on the chimpanzee.  But back to Curious George, the curious primate, we are conditioned from a young age to lump all primates together.  It’s understandable, there are a lot of us.  We go to the zoo and there are gorillas-huge, 300 lb silverback males and there are tiny pygmy marmosets that weigh less than a pound.  True story, there are monkeys that small.  We come away from the zoo so overwhelmed by the fascination of so many primates that we can hardly be expected to retain in sharp relief every species we were enamored with.  But go to the zoo more than once a year on a field trip with your kids and do more than the cursory glance and requisite giggle at their antics.  Watch them for half an hour.  Really look at their behavior and you will start to see Curious George unravel.

I have been fortunate enough to work with many species of primates and many other animals as a zookeeper over the years.  My career took me towards specializing in primates, but many other animals along the way have lent to my experiences and the impending stories you will read here.  There’s a little something for everyone, so come on in and have a listen while I zoo and tell.