Zookeepers put on display at Milwaukee County Zoo
Zoo staff answered questions as part of National Zookeeper Week
They do more than clean up poop and they don't hug tigers.
Milwaukee County zookeepers explained those points and more while they sat behind the glass of the cheetah exhibit from July 21 to July 27. They were put on display as part of national zookeeper week and fielded questions from zoo attendees.
The questions were given to the zookeepers via requests written on a whiteboard. Katie O'Connell read one of her first questions of the day: "Do you like the Transformers?"
She answered that she hasn't seen the cartoons, but saw the first movie.
But most of her questions don't shake out like that.
The first person to ask her a question as she sat down with her cookies, coffee and puzzles, ready to start her six-hour volunteer shift, was a little girl. The questions asked ranged from "What's your favorite animal?" (lions) to things like "How much do the lions eat?" and "What are their names?"
O'Connell gets those questions a lot. She said when she tells someone she's a zookeeper, whether they are family members or friends, two things happen. The first is astonishment. A zookeeper as a profession is just not on people's radars. The second is the opening of a floodgate of questions.
"Do you clean up poop all day?"
"Do you play with the animals all day?"
"What does your work consist of?"
That answer takes a bit more explanation.
O'Connell mainly works in the barn under the big cat country. She works with red pandas, zebras and many animals that go into the barn when they're not on display. Much of what she does is physical, from chopping up fruits to helping move animals to cleaning their pens. She also does medical work and helps train the animals.
"How did you get your job?"
Like O'Connell, many zookeepers have four-year degrees. Some are working on their master's degrees. For her colleague Dawn Kruger, it took a lot of work to get to where she was.
Kruger liked animals and the environment at a very young age. It wasn't until she was in college, however, that she set her sights on working at the Milwaukee County Zoo. She had an animal behavior class in college and it turned her from field work toward the zoo.
She applied right away after college and got her interview. She didn't get the job. Someone else who had much more experience than her was hired.
Unfazed, Kruger set out to get the experience that would land her dream job. She worked at veterinary clinics to get experience with animals. She applied for, and received, internships at the zoo even though she was eight years out of college. She worked at the Racine County Zoo for years until she finally got her second interview at the Milwaukee County Zoo.
A few days later her phone rang. When the curator told her she had the job she was ecstatic. She interrupted him, saying "yup!" when he asked her when she could start.
She's been working at the zoo ever since and is going on her eighth year.
Reading the animals
For Kruger and O'Connel, there are no "Monday blues" after they punch in and see the animals they'll be working with. O'Connell said that while it may be hard for her to get going, when she realizes she'll be working with a lion, all that morning crankiness melts away.
It's the same with Kruger.
"I just love the animals," she said. "If I could train all day long I would love that. It's great getting the chance to work with all these animals and learn their personalities. You learn to read your animals."
While they may enjoy their job, the weather can be the keeper's toughest enemy. When the city shuts down due to a heavy blizzard, the keepers are the ones helping clear paths for the animals. When a heat advisory sends residents scurrying into air conditioned luxury, zoo staff are working to protect the animals from heat exhaustion.
When O'Connell was nine years old she had a birthday party at the zoo. She noticed two keepers were moving an elephant and asked if she could take their picture. They agreed, and she kept the picture until she was hired. She showed the picture to the two keepers who are now her colleagues.
"It's just something that I've always wanted to do," she said on becoming a zookeeper. "We've been coming to this zoo since I was little."
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