What’s it take to be a zookeeper? An inside view on the best job in the world

_MG_8806-4x6-Stacey Lapori

Being a zookeeper at the Dallas Zoo is a dream career for many, but it’s more involved than you may think. To give you the inside scoop, we’ve debunked eight myths about zookeepers.

Myth No. 1: They don’t need higher education.

Truth: Actually, zookeepers at AZA-accredited institutions need a college degree, extensive internships and volunteer hours. The most _MG_9878common bachelor’s degrees are in Biology or Zoology, but comes paired with specialization in specific animals, conservation research, and tons of hands-on time that isn’t usually paid. Some zookeepers go on to earn their masters and doctorate degrees, too.

Myth No. 2: It’s easy to snag a job as a zookeeper.

Truth: Nope. Zookeeper jobs are highly competitive because, let’s face it, it’s a dream job. You definitely need a degree. And even if you’re well-educated, you certainly need a ton of experience – think volunteer and intern hours. You need to be prepared, passionate, and willing to work long hours. Most zoos offer internship and volunteer opportunities because it’s the best way to give students a stepping stone to securing a zookeeper job later on. You’ll need a night job, too, because many of these internships are unpaid.

Myth No. 3: Zookeepers are only responsible for the immediate care of their animals.

Truth: Zookeepers do much more than swoon over their cute critters. They must keep up with the latest information on conservation, training techniques, behavioral studies, education and more. And they definitely have to track what’s going on with animal populations in the wild. Zookeepers often talk to guests about animals, teaching the public about them. Add all of that to feeding, cleaning, and training, and it’s quite a lot to keep up with. Being a zookeeper is like having 10 different jobs in one, and every day is uniquely different.

IMG_0506 TX Horned Lizard - Bradley Lawrence CSMyth No. 4: Zookeepers don’t help animals in the wild.

Truth: Zookeepers and accredited zoos have some of the best resources to help wild populations. We like to call our animals at the Zoo “ambassadors” for their species. When we educate guests and get them excited about the animals they see at the Dallas Zoo, they often choose to take action on behalf of wildlife and wild places. In fact, a portion of every Dallas Zoo ticket you purchase goes directly to our Wild Earth Conservation Fund, helping troubled animals in the wild.

Myth No. 5: Zookeepers don’t scoop poop.

Truth: Zookeepers are the caretakers for their animals. Just like you have to pick up your dog’s poop when you go on a walk, zookeepers clean up after their animals, keeping their habitats clean. This kind of job isn’t for people who are afraid to get dirty. But we promise zookeeping entails a lot more than just scooping poop. It’s one of the most rewarding careers there is.

Myth No. 6: Zookeepers can take vacation whenever they want.

Truth: Most zoo residents need care every single day. That means Thanksgiving, Christmas, when it’s 3 degrees and snowing, and when it’s 112 degrees under a blazing Texas sun. Of course, there’s never only one keeper per animal or group of animals, so schedules are organized accordingly, but holidays are definitely tricky at the zoo. When you’re just beginning your career as a zookeeper, you can expect to be scheduled on unusual days to step in for more experienced keepers who’ve earned their Christmas day off at home.

IMG_0998-4x6Myth No. 7: The breeding process is left up to veterinarians and the animals themselves.

Truth: Zookeepers play a large role in the breeding process of their animals. A great deal has to do with carefully monitoring the behavior of each animal and tracking their responses toward each other, to make sure they’re even interested in breeding. Additionally, zookeepers must keep up with introductions between animals, and follow the Zoo’s guidelines on which animals should breed. Here at the Dallas Zoo, we follow the guidelines established by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), including the many Species Survival Plans that build self-sustaining populations of specific species, ensuring those animals remain on earth.

Myth No. 8: Zookeepers eventually get tired of the job and leave.

Truth: The turnover rate for zookeepers is exceptionally low. Keepers are likely to stay in their chosen profession for the rest of their life. They’re a passionate bunch and love the work they do, despite how difficult it can be with education, cleaning, training, feeding and providing medical care. They love our animals so much that no words can truly describe that kind of affection.

We hope these insights help you understand just what makes zookeepers so special. We’re very thankful for our team and all of the hard work they do for our residents at the Dallas Zoo!

Categories: Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

New roomies: Planning, patience required for nyala, red river hog introductions


Middle Wilds of Africa keeper Jessi Vigneault guest-blogs on Zoohoo!

Just as if you were to put groups of Longhorns and Aggies in a room, getting a nyala herd to coexist peacefully with a sounder of red river hogs can have its challenges, especially when males are involved (sorry, guys).

The Dallas Zoo wanted a new home for its male and two female red river hogs, and the nyala antelope habitat had some extra room to share. Both are African species, although they inhabit different parts of the continent. This new pairing required habitat modifications, new animal training, and a slow, very closely monitored introduction. Ultimately, it would be up to the animals to decide if it would work or not.

The habitat was great for our bachelor herd of four nyala, but it wasn’t quite ready for the rooting and digging habits of hogs, so underground rebar was added to reinforce the fencing. A log and rock barrier was built around the exhibit’s large pond, to prevent the hogs from falling in. And we constructed a concrete drinking bowl for the hogs, because they tend to play with anything light enough to move, including rubber water bowls.

A nyala and red river hog share an inquisitive moment on the first day of face-to-face intros. (Image: Mammal Curator Keith Zdrojewski)

A nyala and red river hog share an inquisitive moment on the first day of face-to-face intros. (Image: Mammal Curator Keith Zdrojewski)

With the habitat ready, we worked on avoiding possible conflict at the gates when the animals “shifted” in and out between the exhibit and their night quarters. We ring a bell and reward the nyala with their favorite treats at the bottom of the exhibit. They quickly learned to come toward the bell when rung. This training provided us a method to pull the nyala away from the top shifting gate when the hogs would be let through.

The next step of the introduction was getting the hogs comfortable and familiar with the area before meeting the nyala. Using a corral made of cattle panels covered with boards and wire mesh, the habitat was divided in half and the hogs were given time to acclimate to each side. We introduced them to their own shifting cue by honking a horn and rewarding them when they shifted in and out.

Though the hogs and nyala can see each other in their night quarters, we also gave them a chance to see and smell each other up close with the protection of the corral. We believed this interaction would give some indication of how the two groups would co-exist. There was some interest from both groups, but no aggressive behaviors were observed, and they soon ignored each other. This was a good sign, so we decided to move forward.

Log piles and large branches were placed around the habitat, so animals being chased would have something to put between them and their pursuer. The corral panels were removed to open the space up so individuals couldn’t be trapped.

It can be hard to predict how animals will react during new introductions and we always prepare for incidents, but this went extremely well. There were a couple of brief disagreements, but no chasing or serious altercations. As a result, the hogs now enjoy spending time in a new home with new friends.

Letting the animals become accustomed to their new surroundings and the sight and smell of other animals before putting them together help ensure successful introductions, and we greatly appreciate the patience of our visitors during this process. Next time you visit the Dallas Zoo, be sure to ride the Adventure Safari monorail and see how the nyala and red river hogs are doing together!

Categories: Mammals, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Rare Egyptian vulture proves he’s special for many reasons

Egyptian Vulture

Bird keeper Debbie Milligan guest-blogs on Zoohoo!

As animal keepers, we are frequently asked: “What is your favorite fill in the blank?” I always think that question is like, “What is your favorite pie?” How can I pick just one when they are all amazing?

However, every once in a while, one member of our collection sticks out and becomes special to a lot of people. In honor of International Vulture Awareness Day on Sept. 3 (put it on your calendar!), and as a way to say bon voyage to one special bird, let me introduce you to Einstein.

Einstein is a 28-year-old Egyptian vulture who came to the Dallas Zoo in 1990. Egyptian vultures are striking birds with white body feathers, black flight feathers and a bare yellow face. With three subspecies, they range from South and Eastern Europe, India and Africa. They tend to be solitary birds or live as a pair; rarely are these birds found in groups.

For his keepers, what makes Einstein so great is his attitude. He is just… mellow. He doesn’t walk, he strolls. He isn’t intimidated by larger birds or with new items. Egyptian vultures are one of the few bird species that use tools. These birds will find rocks, of a particular size, and use the rocks to open up eggs.  The birds will use their bill to pick up the rock and throw it at the egg until they break it open to eat the yolk and egg white inside.

As a special treat, we occasionally give Einstein an unfertile ostrich egg, and he immediately shows off his tool-using skills. It is so impressive to watch him do this. (See my video below!)


Egyptian vultures were the symbol for royalty in ancient Egypt, They were the sacred bird of Egyptian Goddess Isis and can be seen on many hieroglyphs! In fact, Egyptian vultures were so revered, they were protected under the Pharaoh and became so common they were called “Pharaoh’s chicken.”

It’s sad that these beautiful birds are now an endangered species. Their numbers are declining rapidly.  One of the main causes for their downfall, as for most vulture species, is by eating poisoned carcasses.

Many African farmers will deliberately poison livestock carcasses, intended to kill lions and other predators as retaliation after they’ve killed their livestock, but the vultures get to them first. Vultures also die from eating the poisoned carcasses poachers leave, so the birds aren’t able to circle the sky and potentially alert authorities of illegal activity. Vultures are also dying from electrocution by flying into powerlines, and increased human disturbance in their breeding areas.

I bet you’re asking: “Why are you saying goodbye to Einstein if he is so special and we need to breed more Egyptian vultures?” It is because Einstein is one of only three Egyptian vultures in U.S. zoos. In the best interest of his species, and for Einstein to produce chicks, he needs to go to Europe to find a mate. The Prague Zoo is one institution that is world-renowned for breeding Egyptian vultures. Hopefully Einstein will become part of this program and produce many chicks to help the survival of his species.

So please come visit Einstein before he leaves this fall and celebrate this wonderful group of birds: vultures! You can find Einstein in the saddle-billed stork exhibit on the Gorilla Trail near the monorail station.

Categories: Africa, Birds, Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

National Zookeeper Week: Why we love our careers

_MG_0019-Mshindi on Ramona's back-CB

Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper Cristina Powers guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Working with animals in zoos is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Our days are not filled with baby animals crawling all over us; instead a lot of our time is actually spent cleaning up after them, among other not-so-clean tasks.

Something visitors may not know is how zookeepers develop very special relationships with the animals we work with. Our primates have amazing and unique personalities, making every day I work here different than the one before.

Some of our chimps are very playful with us and it doesn’t involve any physical contact. As a protected contact, AZA-accredited zoo, we don’t share the same space with some of our animals, including great apes.

In the mornings, our 26-year-old male chimp, Mookie, loves to engage us in a play session. He’ll look at me, bob his head up and down while bouncing his body, and he’ll run fast through his indoor rooms. I’ll chase him from the hallway and when he gets to the end, he’ll turn around and run the opposite direction.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Mookie will do this many times, then stop, signaling play time is over. Or I’ll just get tired and can’t do it any longer!

With 7-year-old chimp Kona, it’s a little different. I’ll start running along the hallway and he might decide to join in the fun. Even little Mshindi has started to catch on.

These animals are truly special to the people who work with them day in and day out. If they get sick, we worry. If we go on vacation, we miss them. When they move to another zoo, we are sent with them for a few days to help them adjust, and minimize stress after the move.

When keepers leave the zoo, it is certainly not the end of caring and wanting to know more about our animals’ lives. We’ll email their new keepers and ask for updates and pictures. Keepers and volunteers will even arrange personal trips to go see an animal at their new home. And you can bet they’re both happy to see each other.

A lot is said about an elephant’s memory, but don’t underestimate a primate’s. They can act very excited when a retired keeper comes to see them, or even someone they haven’t seen in a while. They’ll greet their old human friends with happy vocalizations; they’ll try to reach for them and sometimes won’t leave until the person is gone.

When chimps are happy they might show it in different ways, such as opening their mouths really big, making panting vocalizations, and bobbing their heads.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Being a zookeeper means sometimes we spend even more time around our animals and co-workers than our own families. During ice and snow storms, when the whole city (including the Zoo!) is shut down for business, we still have to spend many hours driving so we can get here to feed and clean their living quarters. If there’s still snow on the ground the next day, we do it all over again.

Same for holidays. Even though the zoo is closed to the public on Christmas Day, our animals still need to be cared for just the same. So we make sure to have enough staff around to get the job done.

Although not a common occurrence, if severe illness strikes in our animals, or one is still recovering from anesthesia or new situations arise, you bet we will be here overnight, taking turns keeping a watchful eye over them.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye forever. The death of a beloved animal is very hard on us. If time allows, the keepers at home on their days off are called in to say their final goodbye. Tears flow freely. Calls are made and texts are sent to the ones who no longer work at the zoo.

People from other departments, volunteers, old co-workers might send cards, emails, flowers, food – they know we are grieving. We miss them, we remember them, and we bring them up in conversations often. Even new keepers get to know so much about them, because we can’t stop talking about how special they were for years and years to come.

I hope this gives a small glimpse of how special these animals are to us. This is dedicated to all zookeepers and their endless love for animals. Happy National Zookeeper Week, friends.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Mandrill, Zookeepers | Tags: | 3 Comments

My journey to Borneo: A zookeeper’s dream of learning in the rainforest

Assistant carnivore supervisor Lisa Van Slett guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Lisa's fieldwork focused on dipterocarp trees, which create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest.

Lisa’s fieldwork focused on dipterocarp trees, which create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest.

Borneo is a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting, but I didn’t think it would ever become a reality. I had a college professor who used to share stories of doing research on orangutan vocalizations there. He told us about the dense peat swamp jungles, and how they’d wear waders to walk through the swamps while holding recording equipment up in the air, listening to the calls of the orangutans. Even though I didn’t want to get into that water, I knew it was a special island that I needed to add to my bucket list.

Since 2001, I’ve worked with primates, but I’ve always wanted to observe endangered orangutans in the wild. This past year, I was one of the lucky recipients of an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship in Malaysian Borneo, where I worked on an important research project for eight days in the middle of the jungle.

Each year, the Dallas Zoo awards a few staff members an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship. Earthwatch is an environmental charity that engages people worldwide in scientific field research to promote understanding and action for a sustainable environment. It’s pretty much the greatest experience for anyone who has ever had the childhood dream of doing fieldwork in the wild.

With her love of trees and primates, Lisa was a perfect fit for this Earthwatch expedition.

With her love of trees and primates, Lisa was a perfect fit for this Earthwatch expedition.

I was honored to be awarded the one fellowship I wanted so badly, which was being offered for the first time: “Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest.”

The problem

Borneo’s the third-largest island in the world and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. It contains some of the oldest forests, dating back 130 million years. Borneo’s rainforest is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, containing 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, 221 species of mammals and 420 species of birds.

Several Earthwatch researchers are involved in various locations in Borneo, all with different focuses.  My group’s focus was on dipterocarp trees. Although the name isn’t well-known, the dipterocarp is the giant canopy tree that towers above all the rest. Dipterocarps create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest. Gibbon apes use the platform of this tree to make their territorial calls across the valleys as the sun rises on the misty, rainy mornings. These massive trees can grow upwards of 80 meters and live for 200 years.

The team trekked daily through the thick rainforest.

The team trekked daily through the dense tropical rainforests.

In 1996, logging and commercial activities were banned in Danum Valley, a dipterocarp forest in Sabah, Malaysia, when it received the status of Protection Forest Reserve. Until then, some areas were logged, making it an optimal area to study the theories on sustainable logging.

It’s logical to think that over time a forest will regenerate and correct itself, and part of this project’s goal was to see if that is true. Some logging companies planted new trees where they removed others, but they only planted a few types of trees. Different species can be affected by weather patterns, so if the conditions are not correct, they will lose most of the trees they planted.

Another big concern that is being analyzed is forest fragmentation. Even if a patch of land is untouched, depending on the size it can only sustain a certain amount of wildlife. If there are not corridors between the forest fragments, the wildlife cannot look for new breeding opportunities or forage for food.

It’s also important to consider fragment shape rather than just size. Scientists have shown that there is an important correlation between forest edge and center. For example, if a forested area is long and thin, there is more edge than protected center. Edges tend to be thinner in tree density and are often affected by whatever is boarding the forest. It gives people more access to the wildlife. There has been so much deforestation and fragmentation in Borneo that these researchers are trying to analyze each fragment to see if what is left is still sustainable.

Researchers measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next group.

Researchers measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next research group.

The crucial goals of our research were:

  • To assess baseline levels of plant diversity as a measure of overall diversity by visiting forests with different levels of disturbance.
  • To assess how reforestation of forests can be best achieved by monitoring survival and growth of planted tree seeding.
  • To assess degraded and fragmented forests’ ability to maintain ecosystem functioning by measuring decomposition.
  • Establish the susceptibility of forest to erosions by measuring soil moisture levels.

Adding to the problem: Palm Oil

One of the major issues in both Malaysia and Indonesia is palm oil. Companies are cutting down the trees that are worth money, then burning the rest of the land to clear it. That means anything in the way is lost. Most recently, one-third of Indonesia was on fire because of illegal slash-and-burns. Once the land is cleared, oil palms are planted.

Animals can’t live in the plantations, so once the land is converted, the only use is for people. This land is being cleared at a rate of 300 soccer fields per hour. It is thought that 98% of the forests will be gone by 2022. At these rates, orangutans and Sumatran tigers could be extinct within 5-10 years. The Sumatran rhino was just declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia.

Palm oil is in 40-50% of our products, and the demand for it is growing exponentially. It is just a type of vegetable oil, so it is easily masked into our daily lives. The problem isn’t with the oil itself, but with the process by which it is harvested. Many of the plantations are being farmed illegally on protected land. There is sustainable palm oil, but it accounts for only about 16% of the farms.

The expedition

Lisa pictured top row, second from left with her Earthwatch team.

Lisa pictured top row, second from left with her Earthwatch team.

Traveling to Borneo isn’t easy. First, I took a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong, where I had a 20-hour layover.  Next, I hopped on another plane for a three-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah, Malaysia. I met up with the nine people in my group for a jungle safety class, then headed back to the airport to fly to the other side of the island. An hour later, we landed in Lahad Datu, then took a two-hour jeep ride into the jungle, where we arrived at the first field station in Danum Valley in Sabah. Whew.

My group was a mix of volunteers and Shell Oil employees. Some people had been on other Earthwatch expeditions, while others were retired from their normal jobs and wanted an adventure.

At our first field station, we got to see a true primary forest that hadn’t been logged or disturbed. That evening, we had a lecture from one of the scientists explaining the ecosystems of the area and discussing the risks of deforestation and forest fragmentation in this region.

On our first morning, we made the two-hour drive to our final destination: Malua, our field station in a fairly primitive forest.

Lisa planted dipterocarp saplings in the forest.

We had sheltered cabin areas with cots covered in mosquito nets. The showers and bathrooms were not completely enclosed, so we often had to share with local critters. A generator turned on for a few hours a day, but if you wanted to shower at any other time, you had to go down to the river. The river helped cool us down after long hikes. The temperatures were in the upper 90s with 90 percent humidity. Even when it was raining, it didn’t cool down much. When we were in the jungle, the air was thick and extremely muggy. Somehow it felt hotter than Texas!

We were lucky enough to have local women as our cooks. They had meals prepared for us three times a day and boiled the water so it was always safe to drink.

My first morning in Malua, I shot out of bed so abruptly I scared the woman next to me. I heard gibbons! Two different gibbons called out to each other in the morning rain. These apes can be heard almost a mile away.

I worked with gibbons at the Zoo for about eight years and was very excited at the chance to see one in the wild. Apparently that’s not very common since they are shy, and the guides laughed when I told them about my goal. At least I got to hear them each day!

Lisa learned jungle survival skills in the forest.

Lisa learned jungle survival skills in the forest.

Most of us got up early so we could walk up and down the road and look for wildlife. There was evidence that there had been Borneo pygmy elephants on the roads in recent weeks, although we did not run into any at this camp. (I did find some later in the trip along the Kinabatangan River.)

Each day we went to different parts of the forest for our research, typically on two-hour drives along windy, rocky dirt roads. We saw monkeys, bearded pigs, deer, and one long black cobra crossing the road! We measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next group. The hikes were not always on trails and there were several times we had to backtrack because even the guides got turned around.

At times there were so many vines, the guides used machetes to clear the paths. However, this wasn’t much of a problem on the days we hiked through the logged forests, because they were so clear. There were even paths made for the logging equipment. Some replanting had been done by the logging companies, but one issue was clear: they used limited tree species and the planted trees were in very structured lines. It no longer looked like a wild jungle. Different animals use different trees for a variety of reasons. When their options are removed, it can cause problems with nest building, foraging, and breeding.

In the afternoons, we built equipment for making plots in the field. We typically finished off our hard work with a swim in the clear river. It was the only time we really felt cool! We had a couple of hours of free time in the late afternoon and then different lectures after dinner.

An incredible end

Lisa conquers the suspension bridge over the Danum Valley.

Lisa conquers the suspension bridge over Danum Valley.

As a reward for all of our hard work, our guides took us to the Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge, the only public lodging in this part of the jungle. This lodge is famous for its suspension bridge over the Danum Valley. It’s 100 feet off the ground and .2 miles long. I am not a big fan of heights and had never done anything to this scale before, so I had to mentally prepare myself long before I arrived.

Going on this trip as a zookeeper, I have a different way of looking at my surroundings and know different signs of an animal’s presence. Several people already had crossed the bridge, but with my slow start I noticed some branches moving in a distance. I made everyone stop and wait just to see what it was. Patience paid off. We saw a female orangutan climbing through the trees!

She slowly made her way over toward us, went underneath the bridge, then climbed up into one of the trees next to us and had some snacks. I was so thrilled to see a wild orangutan in action that I forgot about all of my fear.

I spent an hour sitting on the bridge, hanging above the stream that runs through the valley below.  We were surrounded by true primary forest. There were hornbills flying in trees that were larger than life, and to top it off, that wild orangutan. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The smile on my face could be seen from the ground.

The experience on that bridge truly sums up my feelings about the trip to Borneo. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. Although I’ve done a lot of traveling, this is the first time I’ve traveled alone internationally. The people were friendly and welcoming everywhere I went. They went out of their way to set a good impression for their country.

Lisa spotted an orangutan climbing through the trees.

Lisa spotted an orangutan climbing through the trees.

I was able to help with a research project that couldn’t be done without dedicated volunteers. I saw several species of primates, bugs I would rather not see again, birds of all shapes and sizes, and the elusive pygmy elephant. On the clear nights, I saw more stars than I’ve seen before. I met some amazing people with similar interests who I hope to keep in contact with.

I would never have been able to go on this journey if it wasn’t for the Dallas Zoo’s Earthwatch program. I am so thankful to have been chosen. I’ve only just begun to spread the word about conflict palm oil and deforestation.

CLICK HERE for more information about Earthwatch.


Categories: Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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