Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The other side of Zookeeping

Name: Rebecca Morro 
Year: Class of 2018 
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio 
Internship: Great Apes Animal Care Intern  
Location: Omaha, Nebraska 

As summer comes to end I wanted to write about the other side of zookeeping, the side that only zookeepers know. If you are thinking about becoming a zookeeper, I think it is a good idea to understand this side of what your career will be. I'd like to preface this by saying that I absolutely loved my time at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo, but this summer allowed me to realize that zookeeping is not for me.  
I am breaking this up into two parts; your job at the zoo and your life outside the zoo.  
Part one: What the Job Description Doesn’t State  
Most people know that the majority of zookeeping is cleaning, but another major part of being a zookeeper is interacting with the public. This includes telling them where the nearest bathroom is or how to get from one part of the zoo to another.  My favorite part is telling the public for the 10th million time to not bang on the glass, despite the posted signs. Doing so can be hard, but you always must have a smiling face because keeping the public happy is the zoo's main goal. Some guests can be rude, but there are people who are genuinely interested in the animals under your care.  
Along with your daily duties for your animal you may have to help if others.  This can include locating free flight birds that didn’t want to train or finding a lost party.   
In addition to keeper talks, some are responsible for doing tours of their animals along with training procedures. I was lucky and my section didn't have to give daily keeper talks, but I know keepers at other zoos that are responsible for 3 keeper talks a day.  
Part two: Personal Lifestyle 
Internships like this one allow you to hear personal stories of how people, zookeepers, live their lives.  Many might think we “play” with our animals each day and people would love to have our job, but these people don't realize that the small portion of our day that is dedicated to the animal, rather than cleaning, is usually focused on training and routine health care. Most do not understand that the average salary of a zookeeper in the United States is $30,000. I speak for many that we do love our job and understand we are playing a critical role in conservation to protect these animals.   
Many keepers get part time jobs to help pay the bills that their zoo paychecks can't cover. I have asked myself multiple times this summer if I could live this lifestyle. Could I afford losing the ability to splurge here and there to go see a movie or even get internet in my home.  Living paycheck to paycheck, for me, will not help pay off student loans, car, and future house payments. Many keepers tend to get roommates to help cover costs of normal living.    
Not only was I working forty hours a week, I was also walking around 14 miles daily.  When you leave the zoo after a long day of cleaning, enrichment making, and food preparation, you are physically tired.  By the time you get home you do not want to cook dinner or go to the store, or even stay up to watch your favorite show.  By 8pm all you want to do is lay down and try to calm your throbbing knees to do it all over again. 
Another important lifestyle change for keepers is their weekends are most likely not going to be Saturday and Sunday.  Some could be Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday and Thursday, some might even be Tuesday and Friday.  I bring this up because having a “weekend” day off with a co-worker is very unlikely. You have living creatures in your care that are depending on you to provide all their necessities seven days a week. 
Many people make comments about how they wish they could work at the zoo, but the general public typically does not understand all that keepers have to do to get into the field and just how difficult it can be. Having a Bachelor’s degree in a science related field isn’t enough, you need an incredible amount of animal related experiences before graduation if you expect to have a chance of getting a job right away.   
I have enjoyed every second of my opportunity here at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and all the experiences I have had. The keepers and animals that I worked with were amazing and I am going to miss them. I hope anyone reading this will go and explore all your options and opportunities before making a life decision. This job is meant for some people, but it is important to intern and try this type of work before accepting a position that you might potentially be unhappy with.  
I wanted to thank everyone at the zoo for the gratitude you have given me and all the knowledge that am leaving with.  I also want to thank Otterbein University's Department of Biology and Earth Science and the  Zoo and Conservation Science program for assisting me with this internship and summer.   

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