National Zookeeper Week: A Thank You

Morgan Burnette, Director of Community Engagement

Zookeeping is a completely unique field, and as I’m sure most of them would agree with me, zookeepers are an even more unique bunch. This is not meant in a derogatory way in the slightest. In fact, I’d argue that almost anyone who chooses to work at a zoo for any length of time is a little unique themselves, myself included. As Director of Community Engagement I work in all Park departments and not just directly in the zoo field here at Chehaw. This gives me the opportunity to have a unique perspective into the lives of the zookeepers and animal staff. I say unique because I’m sure most of the zookeepers just accept all of this as normal day-to-day activity, and most outsiders don’t always get the opportunity to see it.

 I would assume most zookeepers start out the same way: with a passion for animals and/or the world they live in. Over time, as they hone their skills, they turn into these amazing professionals capable of changing the world around them. Whether it’s working through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Program to encourage the breeding of an endangered animal or changing the mind of a single guest who has been taught that “the only good snake is a dead snake,” zookeepers all over the world are working towards a common goal: the conservation of species.

The field of zookeeping has changed significantly over time. No longer concrete menageries, zoos play a critical role in saving species. It is no longer enough to “just really love animals!” Or to be good with a shovel and a water hose. Zookeepers must combine their knowledge of biology and zoology with their knowledge of natural history to create the best possible environment for the animals in their care. This is information usually learned from earning a zoology or related bachelors degree, extensive, competitive internships, and logging unpaid volunteer hours. This is certainly no afterthought or fallback career.

 They must also keep up with the latest information on conservation, training techniques, behavioral studies, continuing education, and more. They track what’s going on with animal populations in the wild as well. Zookeepers are on the front lines of animal management and must work closely with curators, veterinarians, other Park departments, and visitors. They are the first ones to notice when an animal is behaving differently and alert the veterinarian. They design complex exhibits specific to the species in their care. They create feeding and foraging strategies that address the behavioral needs of the specific animal. They utilize positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to train the animals in a low stress way. I’ve seen animals freely offer their limbs to their keeper for injection without a second thought or complaint. How many of you can even manage do that with your children? Of course, they take care of the daily maintenance and well-being of their charges, but a normal day could also include making diets, hauling hay, collecting browse, unloading food deliveries, rewiring an exhibit’s heat lamps or fans, creating animal art, unclogging drains, and so much more. The list is infinite. Being a zookeeper is like having ten different jobs in one, and each day is uniquely different.

What many outsiders don’t seem to realize is how selfless keepers are. This isn’t (merely) about snuggling some cute animals occasionally when you feel like it. Zookeepers are on site and on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. They often miss Christmas mornings, weddings, graduations, and birthday parties. If an animal requires special medical care, their keeper is there for that after-hours medication or observation. They show up in storms, tornado warnings, city-wide blackouts, and floods. The needs of the Zoo and the animals always come first.

It’s not all a call of duty. Our keepers truly respect, love, and care for the animals in their care. Unfortunately, as many of us know too well, loving an animal inevitably comes with heartbreak. I’ve seen a keeper have to make the difficult decision that it’s time to euthanize an animal they’ve cared for and consequently loved for over a decade. Anyone who’s ever had to make the same heart wrenching decision with their own pet can understand the pain that comes with it, no matter how obvious and pragmatic the decision. Keepers choose to bear the burden so that all animals can both live, and when it’s time, leave this life with as much dignity as possible. However, not all animals in their care leave at the end of their life; some are transferred to other Zoos. Working with the AZA Species Survival Plan means that we often take in, as well as ship out, animals to best preserve the species. The SSP works to build self-sustaining populations of specific species, ensuring those animals remain on earth. Keepers also travel all over the country for jobs. All of this means that the only guarantee in a keeper’s life is that the animals they care for won’t be with them forever.

Along with the admiration of the individual animals in their care, zookeepers all have a passion for the conservation of their wild cousins and the species as a whole. I’ve seen our keepers set up tables during the Native American Festival and sell handmade trinkets to raise money for conservation programs for cheetahs, rhinos, lizards, and wolves. Every cent raised going to one of these worthy programs. They sacrifice their own time and money for nothing in return but the satisfaction in knowing they made some small difference in the battle against extinction. I’ve seen them passionately share their knowledge and experiences with guests hoping to spark a change in their preconceived bias or behavior. They drive around south Georgia tracking bats with special sonar equipment in their own time because they have such an enthusiasm for the natural world around them. They attend weekend workshops out of town just to learn how to make better furniture and enrichment items for their animals. They patiently walk me through these processes, and obligingly set to task whatever random request their Director of Community Engagement throws at them, in hopes that I can clumsily share the message with you and others outside of the field.

The turnover rate for zookeepers is exceptionally low, and keepers are likely to stay in their chosen profession for their entire life. They’re a passionate bunch and truly love the work they do; despite how difficult it can be both physically and mentally. As I said before, I think most zookeepers don’t realize how different their life is from the rest of us. In true, zookeeper fashion, they simply embrace their passion, put their heads down, and get to work.  

Please be sure to thank our keepers the next time you see them!

SPLOST VII Detailed Request

 Chehaw SPLOST Proposal Round VII Detailed



Creekside Building Renovations                                                                                                $150,000

The Creekside Building has been hit with a host of maintenance issues. The computer controller for the HVAC system was struck by lightning. The HVAC is 13 years old and we have put over $20,000 into keeping the system running. The temperature can only be controlled manually with a thermostat that I put inside the unit itself. The roof leaks in four places that we must continually patch. The carpet needs to be replaced. The room divider is broken and needs to be replaced as it takes at least two people to open or close it. The chairs in the conference room do not stay raised.


Road and Parking Lot Paving and Repair                                                                               $750,000

The Zoo parking lot has not been resurfaced in years, if ever, and was just a seal coat and not even asphalt when originally done. The road to the new campground needs to be widened and repaved. The service roads in the old campground and throughout the Park need new surface gravel.


Zoo                                                                                                                                                $325,000

The walkways and trails need to be renovated. Sections of the boardwalk were damaged in the 1994 flood and never repaired. The perimeter fencing is still not up to AZA standards. Railings along the Zoo path are over 35 years old and need to be replaced. The railings on the swinging bridge are also outdated and not up to code. The Zoo fence needs to be moved in closer in order to open the area up to the public.


Train                                                                                                                                            $100,000

The train system is over 30 years old and includes more than 7500 ties with an expected lifespan of 15-20 years. We have replaced approximately 600 but the remaining 6900 will all need to be replaced within the next five years. This is not feasible, but we must make a serious effort to attempt replacing 500 each year.


Buildings                                                                                                                                      $250,000
All bathrooms need to be updated and have plumbing and fixtures over 20 years old. The RV bathroom needs to be retrofitted for an HVAC system as there is presently no heat or air in it. The thatched roofs throughout the Zoo Plaza are falling off and in need of immediate repair. The Plaza renovation is now 20 years old with roofs that need to be replaced on five year intervals. The Education Amphitheater needs a new roof immediately. The Ticket Booth is also in desperate need of renovation. 



Vehicles                                                                                                                            $120,000

The three maintenance trucks are 20 years old and completely used up. It takes enormous amounts of money and resources trying to keep them running. Within the year, two will need completely new engines. They look like, and are, junk and do not represent the Park well. Guest Services needs more than one vehicle. The Education Department is doubling each year and the newest vehicle for outreach programs is a 15 year old donated van with over 250,000 miles from Albany Honda. The Zoo has increased its staff without increasing staff costs. They need three more utility vehicles to complete their work.


Equipment                                                                                                                                   $120,000

We need a skid steer to be able to move materials and do light earth work within the exhibits. The attachments available for use with a skid steer cover everything we do ourselves. We also need a man lift for Festival of Lights setup as well as tree work. We routinely rent these machines which is a huge drain on operating costs.


Underground (Water and Electric)                                                                                           $50,000

The old campground water system is rapidly deteriorating with the black pipe that was initially installed exceeding its lifespan. We must dig up and repair leaks at least 10 times a year. There is a ground fault in the campground system somewhere that needs to be found. The new digital surge protectors in RVs are not compatible with our power.


Train                                                                                                                                            $250,000

The original power unit on the train was replaced with a used locomotive and handicapped car in the 90s. The remaining four cars are over 40 years old and replacement parts are no longer available except by special order or manufacture. We need to upgrade the cars to a newer system that is compatible with the locomotive which also needs to be renovated. The engine also needs to be replaced.




Zoo Exhibits                                                                                                                                 $900,000

      The Zoo must be updated to attract and retain guests. We are losing exhibits to deteriorating infrastructure. The bison had to be moved because we couldn’t risk them escaping from rotten fencing. The flamingo exhibit has taken three years to renovate. The focus needs to be on creating a couple of large exhibits and a multitude of smaller exhibits over a five year span with something new every 4-6 months. The public is constantly requesting a big cat exhibit. We are currently developing a red wolf recovery center with matching funds from US Fish & Wildlife.


Festival of Lights                                                                                                                         $100,000

It has been four years since renovating Festival of Lights. It needs to be expanded and reinvented in order to retain and attract guests. We need another 10 complex light displays to reach the next level.


Fiber Optics and Internet Services                                                                                            $200,000

 The fiber optic system needs to be expanded into the Zoo in order to provide video feeds of some animals. The BMX area, RC area, and new campground need to be connected to the internet.


      New Storage Buildings                                                                                                               $200,000

We have outgrown our storage space by providing new services like weddings, Festival of Lights, concerts, etc. These need to be kept indoors and out of the weather. We also need storage or covers for equipment and vehicles.


      Splash Park                                                                                                                                 $300,000

The public has been clamoring for a water feature at Chehaw. The financials for a full water park do not work, however, a large splash park will. It will provide a summer attraction to the Park at a very low revenue period and be relatively low maintenance compared to a water park.


      Zip Line                                                                                                                                        $75,000

The public has also been very excited about the possibility of a zip line. We cannot support a large complex of sip lines, but a few smaller rides can work. Most of the ground work and preplanning has already been completed.


      Rental Facilities                                                                                                                           $300,000

We need several new rental facilities to increase revenue. The wedding surge has reached capacity of the Creekside Center building. We have also experienced rental growth at the Chimney area. We need a midsize facility at this area that will rent at half the price of Creekside. We also need another screened pavilion, preferably with HVAC and heat capabilities, to handle the family reunion traffic. We also need a few smaller picnic shelters around the Play Park.



      Boat Ramp Renovation                                                                                                              $100,000

When the water on Lake Chehaw is next lowered for maintenance we need to renovate the existing boat ramp. We have received tremendous support for a renovated facility in this area. Owners of expensive boats and vehicles are looking for a secure area to load and unload for the day. This will take pressure off of Cox landing which is over run during the boating season. It will also draw boaters to the campground.


      Phase II Campground                                                                                                                $500,000

In the next five years we need to be ready to build another 50 sites along the lakefront. One hundred sites in total will balance about $200,000 of income reduction from the City.


      Bathroom at The Stage                                                                                                               $75,000

As the concert venue grows in popularity a permanent, simple bathroom needs to be constructed that can handle a crowd of 200-500 people.


      Dormitories for Education                                                                                                         $100,000

Our internship program has been incredibly successful. We have replaced one full time position and one part time position with three interns. The cost savings is small, but the man hours have increased by 15%. We could increase this further if we had housing for additional interns. Each department could use one or two interns at minimum wage to replace a current existing position. In addition, we can attract groups looking for housing to do charitable work in the area. Habitat for Humanity has already shown interest.


      Solar Panels (Power Generation Phase I)                                                                                 $500,000

We need to begin becoming energy independent. We will never be completely separated from WG&L, but we can supplement some of the power demands. Our WG&L bill is currently over $100,000 per year.


      Website Expansion                                                                                                                      $10,000

We need to increase our online presence. The most efficient marketing is happening online and our new website has built the framework. We need to drastically expand its capabilities.


      LED Sign                                                                                                                                     $25,000

We need an LED sign on Philema to display what’s going on at the Park. Our biggest problem is getting information to our guests and this banner will reap big rewards.


       Street and Safety Lighting                                                                                                        $25,000

The road from Ticket booth to Creekside is dark and narrow. A system of decorative street lights will not only upgrade the quality of the Creekside rental facility, but minimize traffic safety issues on this narrow entry. Street lights also need to be installed on the new campground road for the same reason.


Total $5,525,000