A Zookeeper's Typical Day
I am often asked, what is a typical day like for a Zookeeper? Of course, I can only answer based on my own experiences. I think its fair to say, each of us has our own take on what a typical day may be like. For example, you would find the rhino keeper's day would be different in comparison to that of a reptile keeper or a penguin keeper.
In my years as a keeper, animal care specialist, trainer, and wildlife specialist (all titles I have held at various places) I can say with no hesitation, it is very much a labor of love.
And it's not just the physical labor. Keepers sacrifice a lot of things most people just consider part of a normal lifestyle. For example, a zookeeper's day starts very early. As in, the shift starts at 6:00 AM and so does the coffee addiction! This is usually because most of the cleaning and feeding needs to be done before the zoo opens to the public. And zookeepers work on weekends, holidays, rainy days, snow days, tornado days, hurricane days, fire days, kids' free day... Yes, that's all the days. That's because, no matter what, animals need to be fed and have their homes cleaned everyday. Human made holidays don't matter, proper care does.
Side note here. With that kind of schedule you can imagine that the zookeeper life-style tends to be different than most people. You get up early. You go to bed early. You don't go out on weekend nights because our weekends are usually during the normal person's work week.
The first part of the morning includes changing into your uniform and work-boots, checking on all of the animals and meeting with the team. These meetings are to go over any information from the day before and anything that may be on the calendar for the day. This can include VIP visits to the area, working with other departments like public relations, veterinary visits and so on.
From there a zookeeper usually dives into the very physical side of the job. You rake, scoop, and shovel. You scrub, disinfect and you hose. Rinse & repeat. (PS. If you don't know, you quickly learn the difference between water-repellent, water resistant & water proof boots.)
You will also be lifting, stooping and moving things. Heavy things. Logs. Rocks. Sticks... Don't get me started on how heavy feed bags, produce tubs and bales of hay are. And at the end of the day you will have bruises, scrapes and bumps. But no recollection as to when or where you got them.
Oh, and by the way this is an outdoor job. It's a job where, in the spring and fall, you hear, "You're so lucky, what I wouldn't give to work outside." But usually in the heat of summer and the dead of winter, you never hear that.
And during all of your "grunt" work you are also using your well trained powers of observation. You see, the job doesn't just require the physical labor, you need to understand animal behavior as well. Essentially the psychology of the species you work with. What's normal for the species and what's not. But also factoring in what's normal for the individual.
All the while, you need to be making mental notes of everything. Yes, everything. What did the poop and pee look like, where was it located, how was the condition of the bedding, etc. And don't forget all of your observations of behavior too. Because near the end of the shift you will need to document your day. Some places have computers, others you write - yeah, like with a pen - so there are clear records for the following keeper, the veterinarians or your supervisor, if this information is ever needed.
Sometimes you also need to be a nurse, when you assist the veterinarians as they tend to the animals you take care of. Don't get me wrong, there are also awesome vet-techs. But you need to know your basic veterinary medicine, medical terms, how to administer medication and all of the record keeping that goes with that too.
If you're lucky, you will see the ever magical moment of a first breath. A new born (or freshly hatched) animal is always an honor to witness . Unfortunately, you will also see the passing of life. Because although many species do live longer in the zoo than their wild counterparts - few live longer than humans. And it always hits you harder than you think it will.
At some point in the day, you will also do a keeper talk or two, or even three. Depending on the area you work in. So public speaking is also a good skill to have - super easy, right? Sometimes it is just in front of the exhibit, other times you may have an ambassador animal that comes out into the public. You will get many predictable questions and some surprising ones, but most important you will probably inspire someone to learn more about your animal friend or even take part in conservation.
Almost forgot... At some point, usually right before your keeper talk, the high pressure hose you were using will break. Or the fruit you were cutting for your animal's diet will squirt you in the eye, or in an obnoxious location on your pants. Really the list of things that will happen to your clothing (or your face) right before a public presentation is surprisingly endless.
And in the end, you will be dirty! You will smell and its not just your body odor. There will be something in your hair that you may or may not be able to identify. You will have dirt under whatever is left of your fingernails. There's a new bruise somewhere too, maybe a scrape you won't even discover until you get home. And your animals will all be well cared for thanks to everything you put into it. Your heart will be full and although you can't take your work home with you, you will be thinking of them, "your animals" until you see them again. Because unlike many other jobs, you are emotionally invested.
Like I said, its a work of passion.
(For a fun article written in 2009 about this topic Click here -> A Day in the LIfe of a Zookeeper )
Photo/Art Credit: Free image from WIX web gallery.