Posts Tagged With: Zookeepers

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

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_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

Gorilla FAQ: Answering the most common questions

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IMG_8572 Gorillas play fight kids - large CS

Dallas Zoo Lower Wilds of Africa keeper Debbie Reid answers some of the most common questions about the Dallas Zoo’s two gorilla troops.

How much do the gorillas weigh?

Bachelor troop: Family troop:
Juba – 438 lbs Subira – 395 lbs
B’wenzi – 427 lbs Shanta – 246 lbs
Shana – 423 lbs Megan – 190 lbs
Zola – 317 lbs

Our gorillas’ weights fluctuate and several are not at their full adult stature (especially our bachelor troop males).

Do you ever go in with the gorillas?

The answer to that is a resounding NO. The gorillas are too large and too strong for staff to enter an enclosure with them. Even roughhousing gorillas can cause serious injuries to humans.

In the morning before the Zoo opens when the gorillas are still in their night quarters, keepers go into each habitat to clean, scrub, mow, trim and put out the morning portion of their diet. The night quarters are cleaned during the day when the gorillas are out.

The only physical contact the keepers have is during training sessions for health checks and body part presentation. And that is still done with a secure barrier between the gorilla and keeper.

_MG_9125-B'Wenzi with pumpkin-CBDo the gorillas spend the night in the habitat?

At night, the gorillas come inside, where they are fed and where they make their night nests.

What do the gorillas eat?

They eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. The bulk of their diet consists of romaine, curly leaf lettuce, kale and celery. They also get a variety of fruits and veggies like apples, oranges, pears, bananas, grapes, broccoli, onion, sweet potatoes and carrots. And they receive seasonal treats like plums, peaches or watermelon in the summer, and pumpkins, squash and sugar cane in the fall and winter. The variety keeps the animals excited for meal times.

Do you bathe the gorillas or brush their long, soft-looking hair?

Gorillas groom themselves to remove loose hair, dead skin, hay or grass. There’s no need for zookeepers to do any grooming.

What is the life expectancy of a gorilla?

Female gorillas in human care tend to live to their mid-40s to early 50s, and males tend to live to their late 30s or early 40s, but some may live even longer. This is why it is important for us to make sure their lives are enriched through training, food, browse and objects to manipulate.

Do you have any baby gorillas?

We have two troops of gorillas, each with their own habitat. Our bachelor group consists of all males 13-14 years old. Our family group has one adult male and two females. They don’t currently have any babies, but we are hopeful this group will have a bundle of joy some day!

How strong are gorillas?

It’s said that they are at least 10 times stronger than an adult male human! This is another reason for keepers to be respectful and cautious while working with them.

IMG_3691 Gorilla Teeth CSHow do you tell the gorillas apart?

To us, the gorillas differ as much as humans do. Each has its own distinct body type. Males outweigh females by at least twice their body weight and their heads are much larger. Their facial features are completely unique. It takes a bit of time watching them and it becomes second nature telling them apart. Keepers are even able to tell who is who by the way the gorillas walk!

Do your gorillas know sign language?

They don’t know sign language, but we use hand signals to ask for behaviors during our health check training sessions. See the public training demonstrations for yourself every Saturday and Sunday at 1:15 p.m.

Do the gorillas fight?

With a troop of males becoming silverbacks, there are times when aggression and injuries occur as they figure out their social status. This is natural behavior, and occurs in the wild, too. For the most part, our troop gets along really well, but just like people, they have good days and bad. We are constantly monitoring our animals and our vet team is always alert if an injury occurs. Thankfully, animals have an amazing ability to heal quickly and naturally.

What is the biggest threat to gorillas?

Although we’re not often asked how gorillas are doing in the wild, keepers like to turn the tables and ask the public if they know who is the biggest threat is to gorillas. The answer is man. Due to mining, meat trade, poaching and habitat destruction, gorillas have never been at greater risk. You can help at home by recycling cellphones, caring for the environment and donating to gorilla conservation causes.

Come visit us and see our wonderful gorillas in the Wilds of Africa!

Categories: Gorilla | Tags: , | 2 Comments

PART TWO: Gorillas’ health a key part of habitat inspection

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Gorilla keeper Cindy McCaleb brings fresh food into the gorilla habitat./Dallas Zoo

Primate keeper Cindy McCaleb brings fresh food into the gorilla habitat./Dallas Zoo

Editor’s note: Dallas Zoo keepers are fully responsible for their animals, from their health to their habitats. This two-part series explores how some keepers care for the areas that are home to our residents. Part Two: The gorilla habitat.

Preparation of the gorilla habitat also begins early every morning, and includes an extra task: Anyone entering the building must don boots, and visitors also must wear rubber gloves and a mask, so no illnesses are passed to the gorillas, or vice versa. Gorillas can catch nearly any ailment that humans can, even the common cold!

Today the primary caretakers responsible for the care of the gorilla habitats are Cindy McCaleb, Primate Keeper, and Sarah Villarreal, Primate Supervisor, both of whom are very familiar with the eight Western lowland gorillas.

Inside the building, one of the volunteers prepares vitamin sandwiches. McCaleb heads out to walk the South habitat, cleaning and checking every corner for branches hanging into the exhibit, toxic plants, or food or trash that may have blown in. She points out squash and tomato plants that have begun growing out of dropped seeds from the gorilla food. Soon, these plants will start bearing fruit, and the gorillas will find a nice treat.

After the initial cleaning is complete, McCaleb circles back and dispenses food. The gorillas’ diet ranges from primate chow to many kinds of fruits and vegetables – these smart animals need a lot of diversity so they don’t tire of any one food. Today’s treat is corn on the cob, hidden away so the gorillas will have fun finding it.

McCaleb cleans the water features in the gorilla exhibit before the Zoo opens./Dallas Zoo

McCaleb cleans the water features in the gorilla exhibit before the Zoo opens./Dallas Zoo

After Cindy finishes both sides of the gorilla habitat, she returns to the kitchen. “The busiest time comes first thing in the morning,” she says. First, the keepers say good morning and do a visual check of all three females (Megan, Madge and Shanta) and five males (Zola, Shana, B’wenzi, Juba and Subira). The keepers look carefully for any abnormalities on the bodies of the animals, who range in weight from 175 pounds (Megan) to 430 pounds (B’wenzi).

“That’s where the medical aspect comes in,” McCaleb says. “You have to recognize the signs and know what’s normal and what isn’t.” This is crucial to keeping the gorillas healthy.

One keeper prepares juice and grapes to be used in training sessions, while another begins cleaning the habitats. The gorilla exhibit totals two acres, and sometimes one keeper must clean it all. After finishing, though, another keeper checks it for the safety of staff and animals. As with the big cats, the gorilla keepers also perform a detailed perimeter check.

McCaleb spreads the produce out for the gorillas to find./Dallas Zoo

McCaleb spreads the produce out for the gorillas to find./Dallas Zoo

The keepers have a training session with the females and Subira to teach behaviors, such as “open mouth” to check their teeth and “full body checks” for medical management. Then they’re released into their habitat.

The males have their own training session, presenting body parts so keepers can check for injuries or abnormalities, and may sometimes be taught a new behavior. For instance, the keepers have been preparing the gorillas for a cardiac ultrasound, so training includes getting them used to a plastic wand similar in size and feel to the one used in ultrasounds. Because gorillas are more communicative through body language than vocalizations, the keepers will point to the area they want the gorillas to present, in addition to saying it aloud.

After training, the males head into their habitat. But the keepers aren’t done: they quickly start cleaning the inside of the night quarters and prepare food for the next day. They also check the enrichment schedule and set out enrichment items for the gorillas to investigate overnight.

These enrichment items vary, from barrels that dole out small amounts of food when rolled around to raisin boards that act as a sort of puzzle for the gorillas to solve. When the animals come in for the night, they start playing with the enrichment toys immediately. McCaleb has even found them with the barrels on their heads!

The gorillas move around freely in their wooded habitat, designed with moats and secluded areas, which is why they may be harder for the public to spot. “We want to let the gorillas feel they have some sort of control, and they have the choice to move away,” McCaleb says.

McCaleb washes the inside viewing windows./Dallas Zoo

McCaleb washes the inside viewing windows./Dallas Zoo

Decisions such as that result from keepers becoming very close to the gorillas. “You in a sense become a part of the troop,” she adds. “If they like what you’re doing, they rumble – you know you’ve done well when you hear the rumble.”

And the way the keepers behave around the animals is important. “If you come in laid back and relaxed, they’ll be laid back and relaxed, too,” McCaleb explains. “If you come in stressed and tense, it will make them stressed and tense. You have to keep calm when you’re with them.”

24/7/365 dedication

Taking care of animals is a constant job — lions, cheetahs and gorillas don’t celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving. Every day, no matter what the weather is or if it’s a holiday, keepers feed and care for their animals.

“We’re here every day, no matter what,” says carnivore keeper Becky Wolf.

The keepers become family, spending most of their time with their animals and each other. And it’s a calling, a labor of love. “It’s the best job in the world,” Wolf adds. “But it’s not a job where you just play with animals – it’s a lot of work.”

A lot of science and research goes into their jobs; keepers at the Dallas Zoo have graduated from college, with degrees varying from biology to zoology to animal studies, even psychology. (McCaleb’s major was social work; she says it helps greatly in identifying animal behavior). Keepers regularly work on projects that involve studying and research.

Keeper Sara Squires began volunteering at the Denver Zoo at age 18 and has been a keeper of hoofstock, hogs, and now lions and cheetahs. She hopes to one day become a behaviorist, which would allow her to still have close contact with the animals.

McCaleb first became interested in gorillas as a child when she saw noted researcher Jane Goodall on television, eventually hearing Goodall speak at her school. She began working at the zoo 15 years ago as a research volunteer, then moved to the animal hospital, then to birds, eventually working her way to gorillas.

It’s a tough job, but a rewarding one.

“People come to this job because they’re so excited to work with the animals,” Cindy says. “They’re so passionate… and that’s what gets you up in the morning.”

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Enrichment, Gorilla, Mammals, Veterinary Care, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

PART ONE: Lion-cheetah habitat gets special attention

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Dallas Zoo keepers are fully responsible for their animals, from their health to their habitats. This two-part series explores how some keepers care for the areas that are home to our residents. PART ONE: The lion-cheetah exhibit.

Keeper Sara Squires mows the lion, cheetah habitat grass early in the morning./Dallas Zoo

Keeper Sara Squires mows the lion, cheetah habitat grass early in the morning./Dallas Zoo

It’s 6:45 a.m. when Sara Hamlin parks behind the lion and cheetah quarters. She’s followed closely by Becky Wolf and Sara Squires, the two primary keepers of these big cats. The sun is just rising and the lions are roaring.

“They’re just saying good morning to each other,” Hamlin explains. She’s been a part of the Dallas Zoo staff for just 10 days, and she’s already used to the noisy greetings. Or maybe she remembers the male lions, Kamaia and Dinari – she used to work at the zoo where they were born. “I got to watch them grow up, and it’s nice to see them again,” Hamlin says.

The two cheetahs are allowed night access to their habitat, so the first task is to bring them inside so it can be cleaned and restocked. As with any task directly involving the big cats, the keepers work in pairs – a door can’t be opened without one keeper announcing the action and the second keeper replying with an “OK.”

Keeper Sara Hamlin trims the bushes in the lion habitat before opening./Dallas Zoo

Keeper Sara Hamlin trims the bushes in the lion habitat before opening./Dallas Zoo

When the siblings are inside, Bonde lies down next to his sister Kilima, and starts vocalizing. He’s ready for breakfast, which has been prepared the day before. The cats are weighed every two weeks, and the Zoo’s nutritionist determines how much food they’ll get. Some guests ask if our cheetahs are underfed, but these cats – with a lean body built for speed – are kept at a healthy weight.

Once the first round of food has been delivered, the keepers move into the habitats to begin cleaning. They mow every two weeks, trim bushes and trees, scrub the inside of the glass, clean any mess the animals have made, check the levels in the pool and water bowls, and set out enrichment items for the day. Enrichment is a process by which keepers enhance the animal’s environment by adding scents, toys, sounds, food, substrate and other items to encourage natural behaviors and keep them physically and mentally fit.

The cheetahs, for example, love the smell of certain human perfumes. The keepers occasionally spray it in a patch of grass, and the cheetahs will rub their faces in it and roll around. Other enrichment items include empty ostrich eggs and small hay piles once used as zebra beds. Because the keepers schedule the cats into each habitat, the food and enrichment they put out vary from day to day. The whole cleaning process can take up to two hours, including a perimeter check of the entire habitat.

Before the lions are let out in the morning, they have a quick training session, which lets the keepers check their

Final step in the morning routine: keepers Becky Wolf & Squires feed the lionesses after they've shifted into the habitat./Dallas Zoo

Final step in the morning routine: keepers Becky Wolf & Squires feed the lionesses after they’ve shifted into the habitat./Dallas Zoo

overall health. They may examine the cats’ teeth and feet for problems or sores, and if one is detected, they apply medication with an oversized cotton swab if necessary.

As the keepers move behind the scenes, all three constantly check and doublecheck doors and locks. “Being [obsessive] can actually be helpful, because you have to do the same thing over and over again and you can’t forget,” Squires says. The keepers also perform a “positive head count,” going into the public viewing area and locating all of the cats (two cheetahs and two lions or lionesses), confirming that they’re safe in their habitat.

The animals are good at being where they need to be. If any of the cats are a bit slow to move in the morning, the keepers encourage them by setting out more meat treats – but they never yell or touch the animals. Dallas Zoo keepers won’t punish animals for challenging behavior. Instead, they ignore the cats until appropriate behavior is observed, then the keepers respond and reward appropriately.

As demonstrated by the public training sessions, rewards always come with good behavior. “Everything we do is training for them,” Squires says. The keepers are constantly aware of how their actions are perceived or may be reinforcing to the animals. For example, if one of the lions is pawing at or banging on a door, the keepers wait until they stop banging before they open the door. If the keepers open the door when they are banging, the cats will continue to do it. So the undesired behavior is ignored, and good behavior is rewarded.

COMING UP: The gorilla habitat.

Categories: Africa, Cheetah, Enrichment, Lion, Mammals, Nutrition, Veterinary Care, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter is naptime for some reptiles and amphibians

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Reptile and amphibian supervisor Bradley Lawrence guest-blogs on taking care of our diverse collection during hibernation months.

Bradley L bundled up

Reptile and amphibian supervisor Bradley Lawrence

Another North Texas winter is in full frigid effect — which means I layer on my warmest clothes, boots, gloves, scarves and – yes – my big, fluffy hat to keep warm. But for our reptiles and amphibians, when the temperatures drop, so do their body temperature, heart rate and digestion.

In the wild, these guys would need to find a temporary home underground or in a sheltered area where they can protect themselves and go into hibernation. Here at the Zoo, even though our reptiles and amphibians are in climate-controlled homes, we still need to take them through the motions of winter. Seasonal changes like temperature and rainfall are crucial cues to let them know when it’s time to reproduce.

Amphibians typically will lay eggs during rain events. This ensures that the eggs and tadpoles will have enough water to last through metamorphosis. Many temperate reptiles will take advantage of warm months to feed while resources are abundant, then go through a period of hibernation through the winter months. Some reptiles will breed prior to hibernation, then gestate through winter and lay eggs or give birth in the spring. Some reptiles will breed in the spring following hibernation.

At the Zoo, we have a “hibernaculum” that we use to house and carefully control the winter temperatures for those temperate animals that need a period of hibernation.  We start by gradually lowering the temperature of the animal’s enclosure and reducing the amount of food they receive. Reptiles generally need warm weather to digest food properly.

Texas horned lizard/Dallas Zoo

Texas horned lizard/Dallas Zoo

Once they have reached a low temperature, they’re taken off of food to let their bodies completely digest and process the food already in their system. Then, after a veterinary exam to ensure they are healthy enough to hibernate, they are placed in the “hibernaculum.” Here, the temperature for some of our snakes can be taken down to as low as 45 degrees.

The Texas horned lizard, a very high-profile lizard in our collection, is one reptile that requires a period of hibernation in order to reproduce. They are all in the hibernaculum now at about 49 degrees. We’ll slowly raise the temps in March to bring them out of hibernation. Then the males and females will be put together for breeding, helping to ensure the survival of this iconic Texas species.

Categories: Conservation, Reptiles and Amphibians, Veterinary Care, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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