Interview with a ZOO KEEPER Part II – Conservation and Zoos

To continue the interview from last week (click here to read if you missed it), I will jump right in!  Katherine is a great friend of mine who interned with me at Zoo Atlanta and is now working full time in their birds department. Enjoy the interview!

S – Shelby (Me)

K – Katherine

S: Do you feel that there is still a negative stigma against zoos? Have you ever received negative comments? …

K: Yes, there is definitely still a negative stigma. A lot of it comes from the media and misinformation. People will come [to the zoo] and think an animal is sad because it is sleeping when that’s actually a good sign. If the animal is up and pacing back and forth, that means they are frustrated or that they are missing something. When they are laying down comfortable enough to be sleeping, that means that they have everything they could ever want and they are relaxing.

S: Yes and something that I noticed a lot was that people [zoo keepers] used the word “natural history” and looked at the animal’s behavior in the wild…

K: Which a lot of times, their behavior in the wild is out of necessity. So elephants walking 40 miles a day, well, that’s because if they didn’t then they would die of dehydration and starvation.

S: And then also, with the big cats and the sleeping, in the wild they do sleep almost their whole lives, right?

K: Yes, they do sleep around 75% of their day or something like that. Haha so….

S: So… I think it’s just that misinformation factor.

K: It is a lot of misinformation. The biggest problem is that people anthropomorphize. They project their own feelings onto the animals without understanding exactly what is going on. Today, I watched a video of a duck eating just how a duck does. They get food in their mouth and go over and get water and the food kind of “mushes” up [in their mouth] and then they swallow it. Well, someone was taking a video and the duck was getting food in its mouth, then going over to the water and these fish were coming up and taking whatever was falling out of its mouth. And the person taking the video for some reason thought that the duck was feeding the fish. All of the bird keepers sitting at the table [watching the video] were like “No, that’s how the duck is eating and the fish are actually kind of annoying it because [the duck] keeps moving to where the fish aren’t.” But the person filming was like “look at the compassion!”. So people see things and they don’t understand it, but they put human characteristics to it.

S: Yes, but I think with the upper level primates, they can show compassion.

K: Yes that is true – that is why I don’t work with them because they creep me out haha.

S: Haha and the really advanced marine mammals too…

K: Yes.

S: And so that I think is the more grey area, the more intelligent species…

K: The self-aware species…

S: Yes and that’s difficult even for us I think, who are huge supporters of zoos. At the end of the day what I learned from working at a zoo (and I don’t know if you agree with me on this) is that there has to be a captive population as a “just in case shit hits the fan.”

K: Yes, especially with how rapidly everything is disappearing… I mean it’s scary.

S: And I don’t think people fully understand that, especially with amphibians and birds. I think that is the most important because they are disappearing so quickly. And insects, but what can you really do about that? Haha

K: Haha yes insects are a tough one.

S: But at least you can take care of the birds and the amphibians, and reptiles to a smaller extent. I think it’s mostly birds and amphibians that are really disappearing at a rapid rate. Like the Bali Myna only living in captivity and not really living in the wild anymore. 

K: Yes and what is so frustrating is that we can breed them like crazy in captivity. I just had them lay eggs during the freeze – they thought it was a great time to lay eggs! The problem is that there is no good reintroduction tactic because the minute these birds are out in the wild, they get taken for the pet trade.

S: Can you describe an example of why you can’t reintroduce certain populations back to their natural habitats? And second, can you describe a positive example of reintroduction that has been successful?

K: Well the main positive one that has been successful recently was the Scimitar-horned oryx. It was declared extinct in the wild so zoos started breeding in captivity and they’ve actually been able to successfully reintroduce the oryx back into the wild after years of it being extinct (with only captive populations). And that reintroduction is all thanks to zoos. Another example is the golden lion tamarin that was brought back from the brink of extinction because of zoos.

S: And so that was in Brazil and then the oryx was in Chad in Africa. So the difference between those countries and then, say a country like Indonesia, is that those countries had a government that was willing to work with the reintroduction efforts…

K: Right because you don’t always have a government that is willing to work with an organization. So with Africa, that is a tough one because each country’s government is so different. But the animal’s aren’t like “ok well then I will stay in this country.” You know, they are traveling across borders. So say you have a spot to introduce a bunch of lions and then you introduce them and they cross into a country with barely any poaching laws… The same example can be used with elephants… and that animal just gets taken, or killed, or trapped, etc. And that government is like “Well it was on our land and we don’t care”, but if it was released in a country with anti-poaching laws, well you can see the conflict. It is very difficult as far as the difference in government in certain areas of the world. Not to mention, there is nowhere to reintroduce half of these animals. I mean lions aren’t the best example because we are not reintroducing them because in the small amounts of spaces where lions can live, they are saturated. If you introduced more, they would start fighting with each other and encroaching on human civilization. There is nowhere to reintroduce them because the wild has shrunk so much.

S: That was the same thing with jaguars in Belize. The jaguar territory itself is so massive that they are saturated to the point where they cannot release any more jaguars. But the jaguar is endangered in every other Central American country, which is interesting. And you still can’t take a jaguar from Belize and move it to Costa Rica.

K: Yeah, its tough…

S: So what are your future career goals one day? Do you want to be a curator, or…?

K: Definitely right now I am interested in being a curator. I am definitely getting more involved with the Species Survival Plans.

S: Can you explain that really quick, I know we were just talking about it…?

K: Yes, so Species Survival Plans (SSPs) are basically like a safe-guard or a “bank” of these species. Not all of them are endangered right now; some of them might just be vulnerable to endangerment. We do have some species that are endangered or critically endangered and these SSPs are basically breeding animals within AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions to create a genetic pool that is diverse enough and strong enough, so that if we ever needed to (or had the chance to) reintroduce them to the wild, we could and would be confident that they would survive. So the SSP is to make sure we are not interbreeding, basically. There are “stud books” kept on every single line of species in every AZA zoo and rankings on how wild their genes are, who their siblings are, who should breed with who – and the job of keeping the stud book is actually unpaid – it is just someone who works at the zoo who takes on the job of organizing the stud book for that species.

S: Right, and it can be a zoo keeper, a veterinarian, a vet tech… and these stud books are species specific so for example, my mentor heads the Milky Eagle Owl SSP and manages the stud book. Would you want to do a bird SSP or just any kind of species?

K: Preferably a bird, mainly because we are always the underdog haha so I am always advocating for birds. And there are a lot out there that are threatened, especially with the song bird crisis in Indonesia where they are being taken from the wild in thousands upon thousands for the song bird trade. Birds are going extinct really quickly because of that.

S: And that is something I find challenging going into exotics… Where you draw the line in your practice with people bringing in illegal exotic animal pets.

K: Right that is always such a fine line. There are people out there who think I shouldn’t have my snakes. And I’m kind of like “Well we have been breeding ball pythons in the United States for so many years that they are now pretty much domesticated.”

S: Yes and the same thing goes for parrots or macaws – there are breeding programs in the United States for these birds. It is just about educating the consumer, if they want a macaw,,,

K: It’s going to live for 80 years…

S: Haha yes it’s going to live for 80 years first of all and second of all you just want to make sure that that particular macaw was not confiscated from its mom in the wild or something. And its tough to know, really, with that situation.

K: And there are exotics that make good pets and exotics that don’t.

S: Right like kinkajous

K: Yes and servals, they are horrible pets. Pygmy marmosets, horrible pets.

S: MONKEYS. All monkeys, don’t get a monkey. Don’t do it haha. If you learn anything from this, don’t get a monkey. I can think of so many… just oh my gosh, honestly.

K: People get monkeys and then they give their monkey a cold and it dies…

S: Or they get them and they are walking around the mall with a monkey in a diaper – no one wants to see your monkey in a diaper! That’s not cute – a puppy is cute.

S: And just to finish, what is your favorite animal that you work with and what is your favorite animal of all time?

K: Hm, that is a tough one. I think my favorite animal that I work with is actually our pair of roulrouls.  They are also called crested wood partridges. We call them Lil Roul J and Ja Roul Roul. And they’re so tiny and fluffy and adorable. But they are so cute and really fun to work with… So this is going to be a departure completely, but my favorite animal is a wolf.

S: What species of wolf? Do you have a preference?

K: Red and Ethiopian.

S: Ethiopian! I will have to look that up. I think the wolves on Vancouver Island are so beautiful. 

K: Also the Mexican wolves are really pretty.

S: Wolves are so cool, but that is a story for another time haha. Would you ever consider switching from birds if the opportunity arose to work with canid species?

K: I don’t know… because working with birds is so dynamic. A lot times when you are working with a certain mammal species, it is all very similar every day with how you care for them. With birds, everything is so different for every individual species. And you can work with so many at once. Just within my routine I am working with 10+ different species. In other facilities, you might be working with three. That would be a tough one because I would love to work with wolves, but at the same time I also have never worked with wolves so… I don’t know because I worked with big cats. I always thought I wanted to work with carnivores and it was great working with the big cats, but I prefer working with birds.

S: I think coming from the veterinary standpoint, birds are the most challenging to work with and I think that is the appeal for a lot of us. They die super easily, they are pretty fragile and at the same time not…

K: But the minute they get sick they die in a day…

S: Like a horse (also a story for another day)! Is there anything else you want to add that you want people to know?

K: I will say it is a very stressful job. You have very little time, a ton to do and you get paid crap, but I would do it over an office job any day. When they say on the job description, high pressure, high intensity, stressful job, they mean it. I have recently been struggling with the stress, but learning how to deal with it.

S: When they say you have to be clocked out at a certain time, you have to be clocked out. You can’t stay over time, it doesn’t matter.

K: Right because you are paid hourly, not salary. On top of taking care of all the animals, you have to make sure you aren’t leaving things unlocked, making sure they all have heat and food, all the right doors are open and none of the wrong doors are open. Then you have to make sure that all 10+ birds are healthy and acting normal, so it’s a lot to keep up with.

S: I think people underestimate the work you do. It’s not just cuddling baby animals all day. While I was at Zoo Atlanta, I felt like zoo keepers were glorified carpenters, landscapers, trainers and animal caregivers, but also grant writers, presenters, educators…

K: Yes and customer service reps…

S: There’s a lot that goes into your job and someone has to do it. I think the whole theme of this blog is that someone has to do these things and it can most certainly be you or anyone who wants to do it. And people shouldn’t be scared of trying to pursue something because if they really want to do it, they will make it happen.

That is the end of the interview!  We have more that I could share and am thinking about creating a podcast to do more of these interviews.  If you are interested in zoo keeping please contact me and I can try help you on your journey.  I hope you enjoyed the interview with a zoo keeper.

Thanks so much for reading and be sure to subscribe for more posts!


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