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What’s it like to be a keeper?

Posted by: Pattie Beaven, Zookeeper

Clockwise from top left: Keeper Laura McComsky works with a giraffe (photo by Brittney Bollay/Woodland Park Zoo), keeper Celine Pardo works with Humboldt penguins (photo by Matt Hagen), and keeper Edgar Fortune works with red ruffed lemurs (photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.)

The zookeeper’s profession by nature occurs mostly behind the scenes, so it can be hard for us keepers to find time outside of Woodland Park Zoo’s regularly scheduled Keeper Chats to meet and talk with zoo visitors. That’s why, in celebration of National Zoo Keeper Week, the Puget Sound Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers hosted two days of activities here at Woodland Park Zoo where a zookeeper was available throughout the day to answer visitor questions about what it is like to be a keeper and what we do on a daily basis to care for the more than 1,000 animals that call Woodland Park Zoo home.

As part of the activities out on zoo grounds, we set up a table with some tools and items commonly used in animal care, including samples of animal diets, enrichment items, training tools, snake hooks, raptor gloves, and keeper boots.
Children check out various food items prepared for zoo animals. Photo by Lauren LaPlante/Woodland Park Zoo.

Kids loved putting their hands in the Jungle Pellets (diet for our fruit-eating birds) and smelling the Lemur Biscuits. Kids would fill up one of the elephants’ boomer balls with Elephant Chow and then see how challenging and enriching it is for the elephants to work at getting the pellets out to eat the yummy snack.
Keeper Jim McNeal uses a target pole with a giraffe to demonstrate animal training to young zoo visitors. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

“What’s this for?” several children asked when seeing a target pole for the first time. I explained that the target is used for training—we ask an animal to touch the red ball at the end of the pole, and reward them with a treat when they do so. That way, we can ask them to move around and follow the target, giving them treats along the way, and train them to do behaviors that help us provide the best care for them.
Keeper Pattie Beaven shows visitors how keepers prepare diets for animals. Photo by Lauren LaPlante/Woodland Park Zoo.

Of course, it’s hard to compete with stickers and coloring sheets, which were the highlights at the table for many of the kids there, but talking with families and sharing how fun and meaningful the keeper career path can be was truly the highlight for me.

Next time you are at the zoo, be sure to check out one of our daily scheduled Keeper Chats for a chance to talk with a zookeeper and learn more about how we care for the zoo’s animals.