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Keeper of the Year

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications

Yesterday concluded National Zookeeper Week—a time to recognize and thank all the amazing keepers here at Woodland Park Zoo and beyond. They work hard every day to care for and enrich the lives of zoo animals, help to save and protect their wild counterparts, and connect with zoo visitors during their talks and public programs inspiring them to learn, care and act on behalf of wildlife everywhere.

At our annual zookeeper week lunch, curator Nancy Hawkes announced the winner of the 2010 Keeper of the Year award—John Samaras. If you are a regular zoo blog reader, you have seen glimpses of John in our photos of the penguin chicks behind the scenes. That’s just one part of the fascinating and rewarding work he does at the zoo.

What is it like to be a zookeeper? Read our Q&A with John:

1.) How long have you been a zookeeper? When did you start working at Woodland Park Zoo?
I started in the zoo field in 1997 in maintenance at the Akron Zoo and became a keeper at the beginning of 1998. After working there I went on to Audubon Zoo, to Sylvan Heights Waterfowl, to PAWS Wildlife Center and then to Woodland Park in the spring of 2009.

2.) Why did you decide to become a zookeeper?
Actually, I would say I entered the field on a non-traditional route. I had a fascination with animals and insects when I was very young. I was always outside catching bugs and watching animals. I always felt a connection with the natural world and had always wanted to make a difference but I didn't know how.

That was until I saw the ad for a maintenance worker position at my local zoo and it just clicked. I figured if I could get hired into maintenance then I could eventually work my way into animal care. So I worked in maintenance for six months, then got hired as a part time keeper for three months and then full time after that.

3.) What animals do you care for at the zoo?
Here at the zoo, my time is split pretty evenly between the penguins and the birds in the Tropical Rainforest exhibit.

4.) What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
My job is rewarding in several ways. Probably most rewarding is having the privilege to be so close to such amazing animals and to learn from them and know that they are healthy and well taken care of. When you take care of a group of animals you build relationships with them and they become like members of your family. Having them accept you into their flock, colony, herd, etc. and having that certain level of trust is a great feeling. We have a great staff of zookeepers here at Woodland Park Zoo that is extremely dedicated to the animals in our care and it's a great environment to work in. Another rewarding aspect of the job is working for an organization like WPZ that is made up of a large, diverse group of people all working together for a common good—to make our zoo the best it can be and exhibit our animals in way the public can appreciate them and be inspired to do their part to help them.

5.) What advice would you give to aspiring zookeepers?
My advice to aspiring zookeepers is to do well in school and focus on science related classes. Most zoos are looking for someone with a biology or zoology degree, as well as experience. Practical experience is very important. Whether it's a job working for a vet hospital, on a farm, or volunteering at a zoo or wildlife center, anything that gives you hands-on experience and is something you can use to build your resume is important. A lot of keepers started out as volunteers or interns, worked hard and made a good impression, and then progressed from there. Another option is attending a "teaching zoo," like Sante Fe in Gainesville, Florida. It's like going to college for a two year degree in zookeeping where you get to learn in the classroom and from doing the actual work.

Photos by Bruce Bohmke, Hannah Letinich and Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.