The role of the Zoo Keeper

July 24, 2019

Since their inception into American culture as a place to gaze at creatures of all shapes and sizes from around the world, zoos have been a destination for public recreation and wonder. In modern times, zoological institutions are leaders in education, public outreach, and conservation, annually generating millions of dollars for wildlife research and preservation. Just as Seneca Park Zoo has experienced this transformation, so has the role of the zoo keeper.

I have been working as an animal care professional for over a decade and can personally attest to the multifaceted list of job responsibilities of a zoo keeper. On any given day we will scoop poop, train an animal for a voluntary injection, talk to a school group, repair machinery, cut up veggies for an animal’s diet, and help reunite a lost child with their parent. We are now more than ever interacting with and educating the public, in addition to our responsibilities to the animals in our care. This is because guests visiting the zoo do not simply want to see animals, they want to see animals that are well cared for and are interested in how zoo keepers accomplish that.

Zoo keeper doing a snake meet-and-greet for guests
Assistant Curator John Adamski doing a snake meet-and-greet for guests. Photo by Julia Schlenker.
Zoo keeper interacting with guests
Zoo keeper Azzara interacting with guests. Photo by James Weinpress.

While animal care professionals are now front and center in two different popular reality shows, there is still so much left for us to share with the guests who visit Seneca Park Zoo. To accommodate this, we have extensive summer programming, offering guests the opportunity to attend keeper chats, training and enrichment demonstrations, and even behind-the-scenes tours. It should not rest solely on the guests’ shoulders to seek out keepers to talk with. I make an effort to speak with guests outside of formal presentations and encourage fellow keepers to do the same.

Some of the best interactions I’ve had with guests have been a result of a casual comment or question I’ve overheard as I pass by. Through these impromptu talks, I’ve learned that what we as keepers consider as typical work responsibilities is extraordinarily interesting to others! Did you know that if we need to collect a fecal sample from a specific animal living in a social group, we will place non-toxic glitter on their food so when it passes through their digestive track, we can identify the correct sample to collect? Or perhaps, that the entire animal care staff participates in live-action safety drills to ensure the safety of our guests? Or when provided different scents as enrichment, the African lions prefer spices like cumin and nutmeg to roll around in?

It’s a common occurrence for a guest to approach me and say, “Can I ask you a stupid question?” I like to reassure them their question is not stupid and has likely been asked by many people before. I look forward to hearing them because it demonstrates a sincere interest in how we provide quality care for the diverse collection of species at the Zoo. So please, ask us questions and I promise you, you’ll learn something quite surprising during your next trip to Seneca Park Zoo!

– Zoologist James Weinpress

Featured image: James interacting with a Zoo guest following a lion experience.