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!