My boss has been at our zoo for three decades now, working her way up from groundskeeper to curator. As one would expect from someone who has spent a long time at one zoo, she has a lot of stories about the zoo, the animals… and the keepers. When talking about the earliest keepers, the ones who were there when she started all of those years ago, she has a special nickname – “animal janitors.” They were good for coming in and cleaning up poop, and not much else. Nor did they especially aspire to be anything else. It was a job. They came, they did it, they got paid, and they went home.
How many careers can say that they have changed as incredibly (and positively) over the past few years as that of zookeeper? The zookeeper of today bears little resemblance to that of a half-century ago. The importance of education has been greatly expanded; a college degree is required at many institutions, and graduate degrees are commonplace. Some colleges have developed entire programs devoted to the training of future zookeepers. Keepers are expected not only be to be educated, knowing the natural history and care requirements of their charges, they are also expected to be educators. While many zoos have education departments these days, it is the animal keepers themselves that the public is most eager to meet and talk to.
Education, of course, is a tool of the zookeeper’s primary mission – conservation. Zoos participate in breeding programs that may be regional, national, or international in scope. Keepers raise funds for conservation projects, an example being the famous “Bowling for Rhinos” events. Some zoos allow their staff to become directly involved in conservation projects in the wild. In the past, zoos could be justly accused of being drains on wild populations, as animals were pulled from the wild to fill exhibit spaces. Now, they represent the last hope for some endangered species, from the Kihansi spray toad to the California condor. It is the keepers who make these conservation triumphs possible.
I once heard Tony Vecchio, director of the Jacksonville Zoo, address a group of zookeepers at a training session in Wheeling. Vecchio told us that, in the past, when he would address a gathering of keepers he would tell them that he himself had been a keeper years ago, to suggest a common bond. “I don’t do that anymore,” he then said, “because what you all do as keepers now is so far beyond anything that I ever did, there’s just no comparison between the two.” He’s right. Today’s best keepers practice training. They use enrichment. They constantly strive to improve the quality of lives for their animals. And they themselves are constantly improving. Within another fifty years or so, maybe the zookeepers of the future will be as far beyond what we do now as we are beyond those who came before us.
Happy National Zookeeper Week!
*Note about Title: I’d heard the nickname “Keepers of the Kingdom” given to the new generation of zookeepers a few years ago and found it to be very charming. It is also, I later found, the title of a book about zoos written by Michael Nichols. No reference to this book is intended
**Where practical. If you are an amphibian keeper and don’t train your salamanders, I’m not looking down my nose at you. (If you DO train your salamanders, get in touch with me right away, I totally need to get a guest article out of you!)