Zoo keepers do more than provide expert animal care, they also act as educators and can share first-hand knowledge of species, the threats facing wildlife around the globe, and what steps we can take to protect vanishing habitats. This week we are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week to recognize these important professionals and shine a light on their careers. The theme this year is how zoo keepers improvise, adapt, and persist through challenges to continue to provide excellent animal care while educating the public in an effort to save species. Keepers at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens were randomly selected to share their story.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A ZOOKEEPER?
"As a child and older, I always wanted to work with animals. I volunteered at the Chattanooga Zoo throughout middle school and high school, but my specific animal-related career goals changed throughout that time. After I completed my bachelor’s degree, I decided to get an Associates in Zoo Animal Technology while I decided if I wanted to apply to vet school or pursue another path. I ultimately loved the more hands-on approach to animal care and conservation, and I never looked back." –LeShea Cochu, Senior and Lead Ambassador Animal Keeper
"I kept snakes for over 30 years (venomous included) and was well known to senior zoo reptile people across the country. When I retired from the US Navy in 2006, several reptile curators told me that I should apply for a job with them. I was offered a job at several zoos but chose the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens." –Karl Betz, Senior Animal Nutrition Technician
"I took three unpaid internships in college, two at Columbus Zoo and one at Zoo New England. I was very fortunate to get a job a few months after I graduated from college and moved across the country to Kansas. My position was working with 80 monkeys of all sizes and that is when I fell in love with primates. I spent a few years working at a zoo on the gulf side of Florida working with everything from birds, carnivores, primates, and small mammals. Lastly, I did a temporary position at White Oak Conservatory on their carnivore team before starting at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens." –Theresa Wolfgang, Mammal Keeper
"I went to school for biology with a focus on animal behavior. Then I interned at the National Aviary where I ended up working for several years." –Danielle Minkus, Senior Bird Keeper
"I have always been interested in all kinds of animals and started pursuing internships in college that would allow me to work with amphibians and reptiles specifically. Things really took off in college when I landed a herpetology internship at Zoo Atlanta. My first day there, I decided I wanted to be a herpetology keeper! I spent the rest of college interning and working at different zoos and applied to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens shortly after graduating. I was thrilled to get this job; I have learned so many valuable things here and have gotten to participate in species conservation in some amazing ways." –Claire Chinery, Herpetology Keeper
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WANTING TO BECOME A KEEPER?
"Volunteer at any reputable zoo or animal facility that you can! If there is not a zoo in your area, volunteer at a farm or animal shelter. I would recommend a 2- or 4-year degree in an animal related field such as Animal Science, Biology, etc. Apply for any internships that you can, and do not limit yourself to a specific animal or area. Take whatever you can get in the beginning and give it your all!" –LeShea Cochu, Senior and Lead Ambassador Animal Keeper
"If someone wants to be a zookeeper, the best piece of advice, I can give is to always have a good attitude, work hard, and always keep an open mind about what you want to work with. The zoo community is very small and a lot of us know each other around the country, so having a good attitude and working hard really goes a long way in this field. A lot of the time when people decide they want to be a zookeeper, they have a specific animal in mind that they want to work with. It is always good to keep that in the back of your mind but always be open to learn more and work with other animals. You never know what species you will fall in love with. I never thought that I would love working with big cats so much. I always respected them for what they were but having never worked with them, I didn't really know how incredible they were. They are definitely one of my favorites now." –Charley Shepherd, Mammal Keeper
"In order to make yourself stand out in a very competitive field, definitely go the extra mile and seize every opportunity! Volunteer, intern, even a part-time job at a zoo/aquarium! Having a positive attitude helps tremendously because being a great part of the team makes the day a whole lot better. Always ask questions and as my supervisor always says, 'You can never be too safe or too clean!'" –Victoria Moore, Mammal Keeper
"Experience is key! Sometimes moving across the country is the step you must do to get a paid keeper position, other times it is volunteering and being in the right place at the right time. Always take advantage of opportunities and ask questions! You will never stop learning in this ever-evolving field." –Theresa Wolfgang, Mammal Keeper
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE AS A KEEPER?
"Some of the most memorable experiences I have had have been when training our animals. When you build up that trust with the animals you work with, sometimes you don't grasp how truly amazing that is. Working with other keepers who have established these behaviors, we are able to do things like voluntary vaccinations, voluntary blood draws, and voluntary subcutaneous fluids. Being a part of that is something that never gets old. The fact that a wild animal, that still has those wild instincts even if they live here at the zoo, trusts me enough to allow preventative care to be administered is one of the most surreal and special feelings in the world." –Charley Shepherd, Mammal Keeper
"While every birth we've had is memorable, our first Atlantic stingray and cownose ray births are among my most memorable experiences since they were not only a first for me, but also for our Zoo." –Kellie Glover, Senior Aquatics Keeper
"Once I got to watch a bird that DNA tested as a male lay an egg, which was very surprising." –Danielle Minkus, Senior Bird Keeper
"There have been so many one of kind experiences. One of the most memorable and highly anticipated moments was being able to hatch out and help hand rear our first Lappet faced vulture chick. We were also able to successfully place the chick back with her parents so they could finish rearing. This was our males first chick at the age of 28, so we were thrilled he could finally have a chick to raise and he was such a great dad." –Danielle Buck, Senior Bird Keeper
"It's hard to say, I have so many neat memories. If I had to choose, one of my favorite memories is releasing hundreds of Striped Newts bred here at the Jacksonville Zoo into Apalachicola National Forest. Watching them in their native habitat for the first time was nothing short of amazing - we are taking big strides towards re-establishing a healthy Striped Newt population in the wild, and it's incredible to be a part of that!" –Claire Chinery, Herpetology Keeper
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE ANIMAL OR EXHIBIT?
"My favorite individual animal is Bogart the Cownose Ray. You can find him cruising around Stingray Bay, usually following closely behind me if I'm in the water." –Kellie Glover, Senior Aquatics Keeper
"My favorite animal group is our 9-member gorilla group. We are lucky enough to have three generations of gorillas that get to live in our great exhibit. They are always keeping me on my toes and making me have to problem solve to take care of them. Plus, I get to see little Kevin grow up! He is already starting to try to play with his older siblings!" –Theresa Wolfgang, Mammal Keeper
"I really love the Northern Sulawesi babirusa. We have two at the zoo, Jeffrey and Ramona, and they are such charismatic animals. They each have their own personality and they make every day better! I try to give them tactile enrichment when I can and they lay down and show their belly and we get to bond that way!" –Victoria Moore, Mammal Keeper
"The Komodo Dragons are my current favorite. I was able to help design their exhibit and was their primary keeper for several years. They are very exciting to work with. Having a dragon come when you call it is about as exciting as it can get." –Karl Betz, Senior Animal Nutrition Technician
"Having worked with these animals for so long it’s hard to choose just one. However, one at the top of my list would be our Lappet faced vultures. They are located near our elephant exhibit in the Africa Loop. I love the way they hunch over and walk around like they are about to cause some trouble. I think scavengers are so cool because they play such a vital role in our ecosystem for both animals and humans. It’s really important we protect these animals and support conservation efforts that help vulture populations around the world since in places like Africa and Asia, their numbers have declined at an alarming rate." –Danielle Buck, Senior Bird Keeper
The American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) is a membership association for animal care professionals. As a Non-profit 501c (3) organization one hundred percent of the funds raised goes towards conservation and the professional development of our keepers.
AAZK is dedicated to advancing animal care, promoting public awareness, enhancing professional development and contributing to local and global conservation through fundraising and stewardship. Our goal is to inspire and motivate through our roles as animal caregivers, educators and conservationists.