Katherine is one of my closest friends and a zoo keeper at Zoo Atlanta. We interned together there in the Program Animals Department and learned so much from each other. She graciously agreed to let me interview her for those who are interested in becoming a zoo keeper and are not really sure where to begin. I hope you enjoy it and please let me know if you have any questions at all.
(This was written based off a recorded conversation between Katherine and I. I tried to keep it true to what we both actually said so please excuse any grammatical errors!)
S- Shelby (TravelingDogtor)
S: Did you always know you wanted to be a zoo keeper?
K: I wouldn’t say I always knew I wanted to be a zoo keeper, but I definitely knew I wanted to care for animas in some way.
S: Was there an experience that led you to want to become a zoo keeper?
So, it was when I got an internship, I was still in college, in 2013, with elephants at Zoo Atlanta. And that is when I kind of started realizing, I was like “I actually really like Zoo Keeping” because until that point I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to work with animals.
S: Where did you go to undergrad?
K: Auburn University
S: What was your major?
K: Wildlife Ecology and Management. So in school we actually focused a lot on management of land and game species, but then I would take electives like conservation biology and taxon specific classes like ornithology, herpetology, ethology.
S: Was there anything else you did in college to help set you up for working with zoos?
K: I volunteered at the South Eastern Raptor Center, so I worked in the rehabilitation section for a while and got a lot of hands-on opportunities for cleaning and taking care of and feeding all the injured raptors there. And I actually did some work with the education part too where I was training and flying raptors and eagles .
S: And flying the eagles at football games?
K: Yep haha (war eagle)
S: Did you do any clubs or activities in college?
K: Not really. Mostly because the raptor center basically was my club. Especially on the education side. Every day I had to go train and feed the bird that was assigned to me. Along with that and a job, I didn’t have time to do clubs honestly.
S: So can you kind of describe what happened when you graduated from college and started on your path towards zoo keeping?
K: With zoo keeping you have to be prepared to do a ton of unpaid internships, so when I got out of college I was actually lucky enough to find an internship with housing and a stipend. Granted, the stipend was only $50 per week, but it was an internship working with big cats and it was basically unpaid. Then you kind of have to be ready to be doing other unpaid internships and part-time jobs. After that is when I started doing the internship at Zoo Atlanta (with you!) and was also working part time at a plant nursery. Luckily I got to live at home too, so that helped with the cost.
S: But you didn’t get a job right away right after you were done with these internships?
K: No it took 3, almost 4 years, before I got a paying job and that wasn’t even permanent. So it took about 4 years for me to get a permanent position after graduating from college.
S: Some people might not know how competitive it is to actually be a zoo keeper, and also people that do know might be discouraged because of how competitive it is. Is there any advice you can offer, or things you wish you would have known before starting?
K: Definitely the networking. A lot of it is about who you know. If it is really what you want to do, don’t give up. It’s not always that they don’t want to hire you, a lot of the times they can’t – there is no position open. And they don’t have a say in that because it is such a tight budget. I was told actually multiple times during internships we would hire you if we could. If it is something you want to do, don’t give up. Also don’t be afraid to take jobs in other states. You may not get the one you want if you are wanting to work at a particular place. I got lucky and was able to work where I wanted to, but be ready to take positions across the country.
S: Whenever they call?
K: Pretty much haha
S: It’s kind of similar in zoo medicine. It’s super competitive and has the same type of lifestyle where you don’t really get a weekend and aren’t paid very well. We were just talking about your weekend being Thursday and Friday now, but still it’s not a normal weekend. It’s tough to balance with your significant other (if you have one), and it would definitely help if they had the same schedule as you. Otherwise, if you are married or have kids, you wouldn’t really have a weekend with your family.
K: Which is actually why it’s so hard dating as a zookeeper.
S: Haha I can see that. Have you thought about that at all for the future? Because that might turn people off from being a zookeeper. I know it turns people off from zoo med; did you think about that when starting?
K: No, I can honestly say because this is my passion I never really thought about that. And I also think about the fact too that I will probably marry someone in the same field as me. As bad as that is because we will both be dirt poor haha, but maybe I will get lucky and find someone who is understanding of my schedule and makes money haha.
S: And eventually you get one weekend day off if you work your way up, right?
K: Eventually haha it might take years and years.
S: So after your internship at Zoo Atlanta was over, what were you doing?
K: I was flying birds in Africa.
S: What is that called for people who might be interested in doing something like that?
K: It is called bird abatement. They actually do it here in the states in airports, a lot of the time, and it’s flying falcons (usually) to scare away nuisance birds. Here it would be doves, pigeons and ducks and they do it to keep them out of the runways at airports so you don’t have bird-airplane collisions that can cause a lot of issues. In Africa, it actually was used as a pest control for crops. Especially in Botswana, the sorghum crops are plagued by red billed quelea (the most numerous bird in the world); they flock in the billions and look like liquid when they are flying, it’s crazy. They were using insane practices to keep them under control like blowing them up, setting their roosts on fire, gassing them and it was causing a lot of ecological issues, not to mention it was pretty cruel. A United States citizen actually thought to bring the bird abatement program over to Botswana and use it on the quelea and it was very successful and a lot more ecologically friendly. And so it just kind of took off and they have been using it ever since. These farmers went from almost 100% crop loss in a lot of their fields every year to less than 3%.
S: That’s insane. It’s amazing. So you were more on the training side in that position, and then you went back to Zoo Atlanta. Are you still doing training or is it mostly animal husbandry?
K: I actually still do a lot of training. Most of the times it has to do with husbandry related things, like kenneling or stationing. I do sometimes miss the training, but I really do love the husbandry. Right now I am the primary for the bird propagation center so I am in charge of a lot of the breeding around the zoo. I should actually be getting some new birds in – Blue Crowned Laughing Thrushes and I am super excited 🙂 So it is definitely a trade off, because the training is fun and everything, but with training you aren’t doing a lot of the setting up breeding and habitats. So it’s very different, but I can definitely say I prefer the behind the scenes work.
S: I kind of skipped over what happened after you got back from Africa. Did you go straight back to Zoo Atlanta?
K: I went straight back to the zoo doing an internship in the same department and worked part-time. Then I got hired as a seasonal keeper in the Birds department for about…
S: A while… it was very stressful haha.
K: Yes it was haha I think about 5 months. Then I finally got hired full-time permanent.
S: Didn’t you have another job offer too?
K: Yes, actually I got an offer from Kansas City, which I turned down. Then I was in the middle of interviewing with the Tracy Aviary and was about to fly out to interview in person after doing a phone and a skype interview, and then I got the job offer from Zoo Atlanta.
S: Can you describe your job now? What department are you in?
K: Well actually I am in Birds. I run the propagation center, which is a routine in itself and in a separate building. Then I take care of blue cranes, cockatoos, and another lower zoo exhibit area with other birds in it, and also wreathed horn bills. Mostly in the morning the work is cleaning and feeding and right now that includes a baby milky owl. I get to feed him and he is super, super cute. We make a lot of time for enrichment. Enrichment is a huge thing, making sure that the priority species (the more intelligent species, like toucans) get enrichment (toys, puzzles, etc.) every day. And projects like perching, training, and personal projects for our own goals. So right now, I have a goal to try to get the hornbills shifting from one side of his enclosure to the other on command. So I am going to have to rearrange how the exhibit is set up and start with a training plan to get him to shift voluntarily. I actually also got a grant recently to do an online Ornithology course through Cornell Lab. So I am super excited about that!
S: Congrats! That’s awesome.
K: Thanks! So yeah, the afternoons are usually for projects or catching up on beak trims or veterinary examinations or any kind of big moves we need to make.
S: Segueing into the veterinary stuff, how do you think veterinarians play a role in zoos and conservation? And is there anything that you think vets could do better? Or that zoos could do better with the relationship between veterinarians and zoo keepers?
I think they play a very important role because they are the last line in taking care of our animals. We may notice something is wrong, but we didn’t get that training so we can’t diagnose it. I think the biggest thing is to make sure that the keepers and the vets have a good relationship – that the vets listen to the keepers and vice versa. And know that each side has knowledge to give. The vets aren’t working with these animals every day, so these keepers know the animals. But at the same time, the keepers don’t know these animals in a medical or anatomical way whereas the vets often do. It is a very “give and take” because I have been to other zoos where the relationship is really hostile, where either the zoo keepers don’t listen to the vets, or the vets think they are above the keepers. And you are not there for yourself, you are there for the animals.
S: Yeah, and that was something I guess that I was confused about – hearing about the miscommunication between the vets and zoo keepers. I guess because no one technically owns those animals so it’s not really a “client” relationship. But it is, in a way, because the keepers are with these animals every day.
K: Right, and that’s how I feel the vets at Zoo Atlanta treat the situation – they realize we really care about these animals!
S: Yes, they are so good!
K: They’re great. The communication is great.
S: Yes for sure, and it’s not always that way at every zoo. But I think most people have a common goal in mind if they are working at a zoo because everyone there loves animals and is definitely not there to make money.
K: Right, definitely not making bank, so you have to be there for the animals haha.
S: Do you feel that there is still a negative stigma against zoos? Have you ever received negative comments? …
TO BE CONTINUED…
I am going to go ahead and end the interview here, with my next post detailing the second part of the interview about how zoos are working towards becoming more focused on the conservation of species. We will discuss Species Survival Plans, Katherine’s career aspirations, the problem with reintroducing species into the wild, and the common misconceptions about the work that goes on behind the scenes at zoos.
Subscribe and be updated when that blog post goes live!
Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions about the interview or want to reach out to Katherine personally.
Until next time!