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So you want to be a zookeeper

Kylie Martin
Keeper Diaries - Posted 10 March 2015

Kylie 11 Red panda

"How did you become a zoo keeper?” So here is one keeper’s answer.

After studying veterinary nursing I worked for nine years as a veterinary nurse, mainly with cats and dogs. I always had an interest in wildlife, and whenever something other than a cat or dog came into the clinic, I always volunteered to take it home and nurse it back to health. A great example of this was a long weekend trip to the Mount I took with my mum. I told her there were going to be a few extra passengers. When I turned up with six ducklings, four baby hedgehogs and three orphan kittens, Mum just shook her head. Most of my “holidays” involved some sort of volunteer work with animals.

In 2005 a job was advertised for a veterinary nurse/zoo keeper at Hamilton Zoo, so I applied. (As I had worked closely with the Zoo veterinarian in general practice, I had some inside knowledge). I was selected for an interview and offered the job of a lifetime. (Yay!)

Kylie 1 AWD check2 Kylie 5 cheetah surgery Kylie 6 cheetah skin

Zoo life presented a steep learning curve for both mind and body. The first couple of months I used to go home after work and devour two large family pizzas (or equivalent) because my body wasn’t used to the physical work. And there was so much to learn about the needs of all the different species.

Kylie 7 cleaning up with an audience Kylie 10 panda cuteness

So after working as a keeper for a year, I enrolled in a correspondence course through Unitec called Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals). This really set me up with the ins and outs of what modern zoos are all about.

Kylie 12 Rhino calf2 Kylie 13 Ring tailed lemur baby hanging on tight Kylie 3 Capuchin monkey chewing on browse

But it’s not until you’re working as a zoo keeper that you realise what qualities are necessary. Here are a few essentials.

  • Excellent memory recall for the 90 species we hold. All of them have different gestations, life spans and ages. Are they endangered or critically endangered? Are they induced ovulators or spontaneous ovulators? The list goes on.

  • Dealing with poo is inevitable. Some days it may be small (marmoset) and firm, next day it may be big (rhino) and runny, sometimes sticky (bird), sometimes funny–coloured, but always tells its own story.

  • Weather lady. If the wind picks up it’s gonna spook the giraffe, if it rains the chimps will start banging on the doors to be let in, if it’s hot the birds will need sprinklers to shower under, and if it’s frosty the visitors may slip on the paths.

  • Public speaker. Giving keeper talks to over 100 people is commonplace over summertime, so learning how to hold a crowd’s attention helps.

  • Horticulturist. So we know what species of trees and plants are suitable for the animals to eat.

  • Electric fence specialist. When the voltage on the Sumatran tiger fence is low, you want to sort the problem out ASAP before the cats do.

  • Teacher. Engaging people in such a way that you are teaching them something about the plights of species we hold. If people feel connected with an animal they are more likely to fight for the cause.

  • Housekeeper and window cleaner. A huge part of our days is spent tidying up after the animals to ensure excellent hygiene.

  • Butcher. Being a vegetarian for 14 years, my least favourite job was to butcher goat or deer carcasses. But that’s what carnivores eat so it’s gotta be done.

  • Tractor and ATV driver. As I grew up a bit of a townie – but not a fullblown townie – it was fun learning how to drive the tractor.

  • Sous-chef. Animals eat a lot of food. My knife skills have improved dramatically since becoming a zoo keeper, except for that one incident we don’t need to mention.

  • Team player and communicator. We all muck in and help each other to get things done. It’s all for the good of the animals.

  • Physical fitness. There is lots of walking, lifting, scrubbing, shovelling, pulling, winding, raking, bending – so your body has to be up for it.

  • Concentration. You want to be focused when working with animals, especially the chimpanzees. They are really smart, and if you’re not on your game you may make a deadly mistake.

  • Safety-conscious. For yourself, the visitors, co-workers and the animals.

  • Working in all conditions. Keepers work 365 days a year (with holidays). If it’s -2°C outside the meerkat mob still needs feeding, if it’s 35°C the giraffe yards still need raking, if there’s torrential rain the tuatara still need checking, if it’s Christmas Day the tapirs still need cuddles, and if it’s a perfect day we thank the weather gods.

  • Observant. Early detection of changes in behaviour is important when looking after wild animals, as they will often try to hide any aches and pains.

It can be a very competitive industry to get into, and most people stay in the job for years if not decades. To be honest, we are a crazy passionate bunch of people too. Lunch breaks are often story-telling times about animal antics. 

Kylie 8 hendrix off to specialist2 Kylie 9 Hendrix the tuatara up in hospital for an xray. No restraint needed he just sat there.

The job is definitely not 9-to-5. The animals we care for are part of our extended family, so we are always thinking about them. I was at a friend’s place the other night and asked if I could weed her garden. She gave me a funny look, but after I told her that the primates at work “love” puha she understood.

The most rewarding part of being a zoo keeper for me, apart from working with all of the amazing animals, is definitely babies of any description. It reinforces that all the hard work we are doing is right, because an animal wouldn’t breed if conditions weren’t optimum. And OMG, baby animals are so cute and create so many funny tales. Enrichment and training is also a cool part of the job because we can provide something different and exciting for the animals. I am also lucky enough to be the zoo veterinary nurse, so it is great to go on seeing the animals outside of the hospital when they are well.

There are some downsides, but only a few. Working every second weekend comes to mind. And saying goodbye to animals you have cared for.

Kylie 2 Caballe the Rhino on her way to Australia2I still can’t believe that I get paid to do something I love doing every day (99% of the time). I smile and laugh every day at the animal antics with my co-workers. I wonder how many people could say that about their jobs.

So if you still want to be a zoo keeper, do lots of volunteer work here and abroad. Get relevant higher education such as the Unitec course or a Bachelor of Science. Read and learn as much as you can about animals. Good luck.

Kylie 4 charlie

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