A day in the life

If you ask zoo keepers what they do, you will most likely get a different answer from each of us. The role of a zoo keeper once focused on the general care of the animals: they cleaned cages and fed the inhabitants. But today, that aspect of our day is only the tip of the iceberg.

The core of our responsibilities remains the general care of the animals, but the definition of “general care” has changed. Cleaning enclosures is more than just “picking up.” When cleaning enclosures, zoo keepers are now more aware of disinfectants and the pathogens they protect against. We focus on giving the animals an environment that is both sanitary and comfortable. Adequate bedding, shelter and easy access to food and water are a must.

Photo by Marie Kraus

Photo by Marie Kraus

Feeding the animals at the Zoo is no easy task. Every animal has different needs and we offer a wide range of diets to meet those needs. Preparing an animal’s diet can take a large portion of our day. We can weigh up to 100 pounds of fish and 50 pounds of meat in one day. The fruit and vegetables we go through would fill a refrigerator and more. I can’t even count the number of insects we pass out.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Training is becoming the cornerstone of animal care at the Zoo. Training programs can be as simple as an animal moving from one enclosure to another, or can be as elaborate as asking an elephant to present its feet for a trim. Training not only provides the animals with the mental stimulation they need but also helps us to accomplish other added responsibilities.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Medical care is just as important for a zoo animal as it is for people and their pets. The dedication of zoo keepers to keep their animals healthy is paramount. Vaccinations, daily medications and even anesthesia are all achieved through training and the bonds that form between zoo keeper and animal. Zoo keepers are the first line of defense when it comes to the animal’s health.


Photo by Tina Fess

Photo by Ken Traub

Photo by Ken Traub

We all like to have fun and explore new things. Enrichment is just that: a way for our animals to have fun. We provide new toys, scents, puzzles and surprises that keep the animals guessing as to what may come next.


Photo by Kelli O’Brien

Photo by Tina Fess

Photo by Tina Fess

The list of jobs that a zoo keeper does can go on and on. Once our daily animal care is done we focus on making the grounds look good, help with minor maintenance issues, serve on a variety of committees, and even extend our reach beyond the borders of the Zoo by serving on Species Survival Plan committees through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other national and international groups.

A day in the life of a zoo keeper is a busy one. The list of things to do never ends. The dedication and commitment of the zoo keepers keeps that list moving forward. Most of us, if asked, would say there is no place we would rather be. It is both a privilege and an honor to be in the company of a zoo animal.


–Robin English, Zoologist

Providing enrichment for the animals, big and small

When you walk through the Zoo, you might see a number of unexpected objects in the exhibits: cardboard boxes, paper lunch bags or even a plastic slide. These items are used for enrichment. As keepers, it’s our job to make sure the animals we care for stay healthy, both physically and mentally. By providing the animals with enrichment items, we can encourage them to behave as they would in the wild.

For example, by giving the tigers boxes with food inside, we hope to evoke the natural behaviors involved with hunting. They must find the boxes using their sense of smell, and then they have to work to get the food, using their claws and teeth the same way they would in nature. This helps keep their minds sharp and active.

Seeing an animal interact with their enrichment can be very exciting for our visitors! With our larger animals, their enrichment items are often very clear to see; it’s hard to miss the barrels hanging in the elephant barn or the termite mound in the orangutan exhibit.

But what do we do for smaller animals?

If you have been to the Zoo during the summer months, you may have had a chance to meet some of our education animals. These are animals that aren’t on exhibit, but rather come out for special programs where people are able to meet them up close. These are the same animals that are featured in our other education programs, such as ZooMobiles, ZooClasses and birthday parties. When they aren’t out on programs, it is my job to make sure they are receiving the same care as our other animals, and this includes providing them with (size appropriate) enrichment.

My favorite part of the day is coming up with new and exciting ways to exercise our education animals’ minds. When coming up with enrichment, I want to think about what the animal would do in the wild and try to bring that behavior out.


For example, our armadillo Doug loves to dig for insects. I sometimes will give him a huge pile of wood chips, pine shavings, and cat litter with mealworms tucked inside. To get the worms, he has to dig though the pile, which he does with enthusiasm.

IMG_0300Our hedgehogs and short-tailed opossum also love to forage for insects. By hanging paper towel tubes in their enclosures with meal worms inside, we encourage interaction with their surroundings.

While food is always a good motivator for an animal to get active, it’s not the only way to enrich an animal. Sometimes a bag filled with paper is enough, or a box sprayed with perfume.  The unfamiliar scent is interesting and therefore will encourage exploration. Plus, boxes and paper bags make great new hiding places. Changing the arrangement of their enclosure or adding new furniture can be a great form of enrichment as well.


There is never a slow day working at the Zoo, and making sure the animals have the opportunity to use their minds is one of our many responsibilities (it’s also one of the best). It’s a chance for the animals to express themselves and a chance for us to really get to know each animal’s personality on an individual level.

Big or small, enrichment is a vital part of the day for every animal at the Z

–Hannah Comstock, Zoo Keeper

Zoo wins AZA Quarter Century Award

This month, the Seneca Park Zoo received the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Quarter Century Award. Established in 2015, this new award acknowledges facilities that have maintained AZA accreditation continuously for 25 years or more, highlighting their commitment to animal care, welfare, conservation, education, and more. The inaugural group of 119 awardees includes many facilities that have successfully achieved AZA accreditation well beyond the 25 year mark, including Seneca Park Zoo, which has maintained accreditation for 37 years.

The award recognizes a commitment to maintaining the highest standards in:

  • animal care
  • animal welfare
  • animal management
  • veterinary care
  • conservation
  • education
  • staffing
  • facilities
  • safety
  • guest services
  • and more

Seneca Park Zoo’s dedication to best modern zoological practices and philosophies is a hallmark of AZA accreditation, and we are proud to be honored for our continuous commitment to upholding AZA standards and policies.

Learn more about the AZA programs in which the Zoo participates.

Do the elephants really eat trees?

I am often asked this question by visitors while the elephants are enjoying a delicious truckload of browse that the keepers have collected for them. Browse is defined as “shoots, twigs, and leaves of trees and shrubs used by animals for food.”13

Seneca Park Zoo implements a browse program as part of the elephant management program. This is a requirement for accreditation by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The elephant staff works very hard to provide Genny C and Lilac with a variety of browse as often as possible.

12The goal is to encourage species-appropriate appetite behaviors, as well as to promote dental health. Since elephant teeth migrate forward (not vertically), it is important that the right type of food is offered to promote dental health and allow for the natural progression of each molar.

The elephant staff offers types of browse that have been approved by our veterinarian as safe for the elephants to eat. Staff is trained to be able to identify various species of trees that are native to Western New York. Seneca Park Zoo has relationships with several local towns and tree companies who are happy to help provide the elephants with browse.

14So the answer to the question “Do the elephants really eat trees?” is YES! Their favorites are sugar maple, Norway maple, silver maple and willow. They eat the leaves and small branches completely, chew the bark off of the medium size branches, and use their tusks to scrape the bark off of the large logs.


Blog by Sue Rea, Zoologist; Photos by Sue Rea and Jenna Bovee, Elephant Handler

More about our penguin colony

Photo by Crystal Bratcher
Photo by Crystal Bratcher

Here at the Zoo we currently have a colony of 36 African penguins: 28 adults, seven juveniles, and one chick. With so many birds running around, two of the most common questions I get as a penguin keeper are: “How do you tell all of them apart?” and “How do you keep track of all those penguins?”

Well, for me, telling them apart is easy. Each penguin has a band with colored beads on either their left or right wing. Each mated pair of penguins and their chicks have the same color or combination of colors, with males banded on the left, and females on the right.

When it comes to keeping track of them, it’s more than just being able to tell them apart. It’s about knowing each individual penguin enough to tell if they’re acting in an irregular way. For example, a typically good eater not eating as much as they normally do, or a social butterfly that seems to be separating themselves from the rest of the colony, indicates that something could be wrong. Then again, they could simply be getting ready to lay an egg.

Animals are not good at letting you know if they aren’t feeling well. So, we need other methods besides behavioral observations to keep track of their health. One way we can tell if something might be wrong is by keeping track of weights. At the beginning of every month, we weigh the entire colony. All of the penguins are used to being weighed, so it’s a fairly easy process. Check out the video below to watch the routine.

Don’t forget to visit the Zoo on Monday, October 13th for Penguin Awareness Day! There will be keeper talks, penguin feeding demonstrations, and we have some great silent auction items to bid on that day, too. Hope to see everyone there.

– Heather Paye, zoo keeper

Poopology: The study of…

Photo by Garrett Caulkins
Photo by Garrett Caulkins

…poop. OK, so it isn’t really a word, but the study of animal droppings is a big part of the Seneca Park Zoo’s animal preventative health program.

Droppings from all the Zoo’s animals are examined annually to help assess the health of the collection. They can reveal a number of things about the animal and requires very little effort on the part of the animal and the staff. When testing animal droppings, there are three main components that are evaluated.

The first is general appearance. Does it look normal? Inconsistencies in appearance can mean a more underlying problem that may require additional tests.

Second: Is there anything there that shouldn’t be there? Foreign objects can sometimes find their way into the digestive tract of animals. Most pass through and are easily identified in droppings. If we know something had been ingested, we can check to make sure it passes through. If not, we can take other measures to help move things along.

Third is a microscopic exam looking for internal parasites. This is the part where we look for worms and other invaders. Parasites can cause additional trouble for our animals and any positive results are evaluated by the veterinarian for the proper course of treatment.

– Robin English, Veterinary Technician

Ever wonder how the Zoo weighs animals?

Sometimes it’s as easy as placing some of them on a scale and getting a reading. Others, like our Amur tigers, may need a little convincing.

The staff works hard and can be very patient and inventive. Using barrels or other large objects to create a walkway, a large board is placed in the exhibit and covered with cardboard or leaves. Sensors connected to a scale are placed under the board, and using our tigers’ favorite treats (chicken, herring or capelin are preferred) the animals are walked onto the board and stationed there long enough to get an accurate weight.

Of course this seldom happens overnight, so establishing trust and keeping it positive is the key to it all. Knowing our animals’ weights is a very important aspect of our husbandry program and making it a positive experience for them is paramount.

– Ryan Statt, zoo keeper

Training elephants for veterinary procedures

The key to keeping elephants healthy and treating them when they are sick relies on the ability to monitor, test and administer health care and treatment. Proactive training makes monitoring the elephants’ health possible and makes testing and treatment in times of compromised health less stressful for the elephants, for the elephant staff and for the veterinary staff.

The elephant keepers have trained Genny C. and Lilac to accept many veterinary procedures. They are rewarded for willingly participating with their favorite treats, as well as lots of verbal praise. Here are a few examples:

– Sue Rea, zoologist

Tusk x-rays on an elephant

Photo by Gail Tabone
Photo by Gail Tabone

Elephant Manager, Lindsay Bronson works together with the Zoo’s Veterinary Technician Garrett Caulkins and Director of Animal Health & Conservation Dr. Jeff Wyatt to radiograph (take an X-ray) of our African elephant Genny C’s tusk and sulcus.

The sulcus is the area around the tusk. Genny C is happy to participate not only because she is well trained but because she gets lots of treats and positive reinforcement throughout the procedure.

Our elephants know about 60 behaviors, many of which are medical behaviors that allow us to do routine check ups on them. The relationship between the elephants, their keepers and the vet staff is also important when doing medical behaviors. The trust among them all helps to make the procedure go safely and smoothly.

– Gail Tabone, Assistant Zoo Director