By Jillian Davis
Contrary to most beliefs, being a zookeeper doesn’t just consist of feeding and cleaning up after the animals. A keeper’s duties range from being a dietician, a vet assistant, a housekeeper, to being a creative thinker. The field is a competitive one, and requires a lot of physically taxing work. So what does it take to be a zookeeper? Aside from the obvious love of animals, most zoos and aquariums require keepers to hold some sort of degree, whether it’s in biology, zoology or other related field. Besides a genuine love and respect for animals, keepers require a keen eye of observation. Keepers work with the animals so closely that any change in their behavior, appetite and general disposition is usually noticed.
A good keeper is also patient. Take for instance our American Black Bear, Tupelo. It took zookeepers many, many months of hard work to gain the trust of the eight year male. Even now, four years later, we must take great care to keep his environment stress free to avoid any relapse in our bond with him. Another test of patience for the Animal Forest zookeepers is Acala, one of our resident pumas. During the spring months, she prefers to take her time coming inside at closing time. We are forced to abide by “puma time” and wait until she deems us worthy enough of compliance.
Creativity is another important attribute. An important element of zoo keeping is enrichment, which is when keepers provide different sights, smells, textures and tastes to the animals’ environment to stimulate natural species behavior. Keepers are constantly coming up with new ideas to keep the animals active.
Zookeepers also train some of the animals they work with. Using techniques of whistles, rewards, and positive reinforcement, keepers can hone the animal’s normal behavior into a helpful tool. Animals can be trained to assist in their own care, and veterinary checkups. The bears, pumas, otters, and bobcats at the Animal Forest are all trained to step onto a scale for routine weight checks. Memphis the black bear is even in the process of being trained to open his mouth on command to inspect those pearly whites of his!
So, do you have any of the above qualities? If so, utilize those attributes by volunteering in the zoo. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a volunteer interview, and see if you have what it takes to be a zookeeper.