For most patrons of zoological parks, an opportunity to meet a zoo keeper far surpasses a chance to meet the zoo director, the zoo curator and even the zoo veterinarian. In fact, “Meet the Keeper” presentations are often touted as being more popular than up close and personal encounters with the zoo animals.
Zoo and aquarium guests are fascinated by the uniformed wildlife experts responsible for the care of the individual animals that serve as ambassadors for their species at zoological parks around the country. Many of these keepers are celebrities in their own right with groupies and followings of docents and volunteers that hang on to every word they utter. I was always impressed that I could walk out of an empty enclosure after cleaning up animal excrement and draw a crowd. When you think about it, it is quite a feat! But that is not all zoo keepers do by a long shot.
Zoo keepers and aquarists have emerged as more than just budding celebrities among wildlife professionals. They play a vital role in the conservation programs set forth by the living institutions that they work for and represent. Zoo Keepers, many of which have Masters Degrees and some even with PhDs, play an integral role in research, conservation and education. They are trained in operant conditioning—a fundamental concept in behavioral psychology that is applied to the training and behavioral management of zoo animals.
It is an eclectic and rewarding job. In one day, for example, a great ape keeper may clean an enclosure, train a gorilla for a blood draw, give a presentation on the field conservation of bonobos, meet with curators to discuss the design of a new orangutan exhibit, and feed the chimpanzees as part of a demonstration on conditioned cooperative feeding in simians. In addition, they may collect behavioral data regarding some aspect of social behavior in a newly introduced group of apes and publish their research.
Let’s look at a few of my colleagues. Megan Elder, of the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota is the International Orangutan Studbook Keeper for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She coordinates much of the breeding program for the world’s captive population of orangutans, and tracks the demographics of the population while monitoring its genetic health.
Shane Good, an animal keeper at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, is also the Past President of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), the Past President of the International Congress of Zoo Keepers and an Advisory Council Member for Polar Bears International, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the iconic bear of the North.
According to the AAZK website “As the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and vanishing habitats has increased, our role as educators and wildlife ambassadors has become essential. During the third week of July each year, celebrate National Zoo Keeper Week; both you and your animals deserve the recognition.”
There are approximately 6,000 animal care professionals in the United States.
To help increase public awareness about the need to preserve our precious habitats and the animals which inhabit them and to recognize the roles that zookeepers play in animal conservation and education, the American Association of Zoo Keepers invites zoos, aquariums, and their guests to participate in National Zoo Keeper Week.
Please join me in thanking Zoo Keepers in North America and worldwide this coming week for all they do for zoo animal welfare and conservation. Please make an effort to visit your local zoo to support these dedicated professionals as they work to save imperiled species around the globe.