Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Wild Workdays

What does a zoo keeper do? Find out by joining two of our dedicated keepers on the job.

By Gaby Gollub

National Zoo keeper Gwen Cooper

National Zoo keeper Gwen Cooper (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

As a child, Gwen Cooper couldn’t stop bringing home stray cats and dogs, caring for injured birds, and catching insects. So it wasn’t a big surprise when, years later, career assessment tests indicated that she should work with plants or animals. Her mother had encouraged her to enroll in a program aimed at getting single mothers back into the workforce, and Cooper excelled at her classes.

When it came time to find an internship, she began working at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as a volunteer keeper aide. A temporary keeper position at the Zoo’s Bird House opened up in 1991. Thanks to her year of volunteering, she had the required experience. A year after that, she secured a permanent position and has been a Bird House keeper ever since.

Cooper is one of about 90 keepers caring for the 2,000 animals at the Zoo’s Washington, D.C., and Front Royal, Virginia, campuses. Keepers work with everything from anacondas to zebras. They clean, prepare food, educate visitors, conduct research, enrich the lives of the animals in their charge, and do much more.

Keepers have a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. One Kids’ Farm keeper began her tenure here as a videographer. An Amazonia keeper has cared for Zoo animals for 30 years. Eight others have been here more than 20 years. Many have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in biology, zoology, or a related science, while others have degrees in something else or didn’t finish college. Some served as volunteer keeper aides and behavior watchers through Friends of the National Zoo. Many have worked at other zoos. Despite their differences, one thing they all share is a commitment to providing the highest quality care for the Zoo’s animals.

Knowing Your Animals

It’s early on a Tuesday morning, and Cooper is unlocking the door of the Outdoor Flight Cage, the Zoo’s large aviary. An Indian peacock displays his stunning tail feathers to the females nearby. This area is part of Cooper’s “line,” the animals and exhibits for which a keeper is responsible.

The hooded mergansers and smews are in the lower pool and seem to be waiting for Cooper. “I’d like to think they know me, but I think they just know food.” She looks at each of the ducks— their eyes, feathers, relative locations, and behavior. Location can indicate ill health for flock birds, she explains. If 60 of the Zoo’s flamingos are standing close together, and one has separated itself by several feet, something could be wrong. This morning, everyone appears normal and healthy.

Marie Galloway tends an elephant's toenals. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Cooper reaches into a bag of game-bird pellets and tosses a dozen handfuls into the pool. She watches the birds pursue them. If a bird is uninterested in eating, she will note that in the keeper report she writes daily. A more serious concern will prompt her to talk to her supervisor and determine whether they should call a vet. Having worked with the Zoo’s bird collection for so many years, she has come to learn typical behaviors and markers of illness for dozens of species. “I pride myself on knowing the personalities of the birds,” she says.

Cooper turns around and sees the teals in the same area where they usually are. Because they’re territorial, it’s easy for her to find them every day and see how they look. She sprinkles food into a second pool. Three of the peafowl and a few mountain bamboo partridges are walking around, so she counts and inspects them. Then she scatters pellets mixed with chopped vegetables. She does this—rather than dumping them into a dish—so the birds have to forage, an activity that serves as enrichment. She also throws handfuls of thawed crickets, many of which are moving around.

The food had arrived in tubs earlier that morning from the commissary. Keepers in the Zoo’s nutrition department prepare diets for animals throughout the Zoo to meet their widely varying nutritional needs. They measure the pellets, mealworms, biscuits, and meat; count mice; set aside the proper number of whole fruits and vegetables and cans of food. In each exhibit’s kitchen, keepers—and sometimes volunteer keeper aides—chop the carrots, quarter the apples, open the cans, form meatballs, mix in medication as needed, and distribute food for each enclosure. They do this every day, sometimes twice a day.


Jenny Spotten and Craig Saffoe discuss sloth bears (Ann batdorf/NZP)


Cleaning and Candling

A new vet tech named Sara Meadows walks into the aviary. The vet techs are rotating throughout the Zoo’s exhibits, pitching in four days a month in each area, to get to know the animals and the keepers. Cooper starts instructing her how to clean the poop off the rocks and railing with a high-pressure hose. Training staff is all in a day’s work for Cooper. She recently began coordinating volunteers from local schools to give them a meaningful experience and maybe even get them started in the field. “I love mentoring people,” she says.

Cleaning times vary throughout the Zoo. One enclosure may need only 20 minutes of sweeping and glass cleaning, while another may take hours. Some need fresh branches arranged just so. Elsewhere, a pool must be drained, cleaned, and refilled. Making the exhibits beautiful for the public is just one of the results. A clean home for the animals—and one with a new array of branches—is part of the formula for high-quality animal care.

Nicole MacCorkle trains a panda. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

After Cooper checks and feeds the rest of the birds in the enclosure and makes sure there are no electrical or water issues, she heads over to the greater rhea shed with keeper Ric Pinto. It’s raining, but their work must go on, snow or sunshine, 365 days a year. She encourages the five-foot-eight male bird to stand up and coaxes him to a door, so she can handle one of the five eggs he’s incubating without his getting upset. Well, seven if you count the two dummy eggs used to persuade the female the clutch is big enough and she can stop laying, and to help the male better distribute his weight. She then candles the egg—holding it up to a device that shines a bright light into the egg. Candling should reveal the air sac and growing embryo. She can’t get a good look today. Another day, though, Zoo staff used the device to find a vein from which they extracted blood, analyzed the DNA, and learned that the embryo is female. The chick will be sent to another zoo, which requested a female.

While Cooper is busy with rhea eggs, other Bird House keepers conduct observations on the double-wattled cassowaries and kori bustards to collect information on their typical behavior in a zoo. Three times a day for five minutes, they record the birds’ activities every minute on a chart called an ethogram. National Zoo data will be combined with those from a few other zoos conducting the same observations on their cassowaries and koris.

As a result, the community of keepers will have a greater understanding of their birds and be able to provide even better care. This is just one of many examples of research undertaken by keepers. Being a keeper “is the dream job,” Cooper says. She gets to make sure all the birds on her line are taken care of as best she can, just as she did as a child.

Enriching Animals Lives

“These are probably the most interesting animals at the Zoo,” says Kenton Kerns. He is not talking about giant pandas but about the naked mole-rats that live in a colony in the Small Mammal House, where he has been a keeper since 2007. Kerns is giving a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibit to a small group, and his audience listens intently while he gives a dozen examples of how exceptional the species is.

Small mammal keeper Kenton Kerns holds a tenrec.

Small mammal keeper Kenton Kerns holds a tenrec. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Unique among mammals, these pink, wrinkly animals are ectothermic (“coldblooded”) and immune to cancer. Their breeding queen keeps growing throughout her life, which can be more than 28 years. She can have the biggest litter—up to 28 pups—of any mammal.

The mole-rats are not really naked. They have a few fine hairs on their feet and around—and inside—their mouths. “It’s disgusting but it’s awesome,” Kerns says. And one more fact about their mouths: A quarter of these rodents’ musculature is dedicated to closing their jaws—the same proportion as in each of our legs.

Naked mole-rats are particular about their burrows. Each day, Kerns says, a keeper removes all of the shavings in the colony’s enclosure and replaces them with fresh ones. Then the mole-rats move them around the chambers just where they want them—few in the “pantry,” where the sweet potato and other food is stored, and more in the “bathroom” chamber.

Kerns has already told the group all about the greater Madagascar hedgehog tenrec, which looks like a “sleeping Brillo pad” while in torpor, a state similar to hibernation but with a weekly period of consciousness to eat and urinate. And the group has met a three-banded armadillo and a prehensile-tailed porcupine that was hand-reared by a team of Zoo keepers.

Kerns says his good-byes and moves on to a training session with Waddles, a prairie dog. Kerns hopes that Waddles will one day be comfortable with being removed from his exhibit and spending a few minutes in a plastic demonstration box during a tour. It has taken Kerns and another keeper a month to get Waddles to enter a box on the floor of his exhibit and remain there while he eats his leaf-eater biscuit reward. At first, Waddles would become agitated when the box door was closed (prompting keepers to open it back up), but he now remains calm.

Training animals to enter crates so they can be relocated, step on scales, come inside, lie down for ultrasounds, present their paws, and—for some—be handled is a major part of a keeper’s job. When animals are trained, staff can better monitor their health and care for them. Before an Andean bear gave birth to twins in January, she allowed staff to conduct an ultrasound and confirm she was pregnant. The bear team was then able to estimate her due date and be prepared for cubs.

Keepers can always use more time to train and create enrichment for their animals. Staff schedules vary. Some days there are two keepers and a volunteer aide taking care of a line, while on other days, a keeper may work alone. The keepers, many of whom once were keeper aides, appreciate the help they get from volunteers.

“By helping out with the day-to-day duties,” great ape keeper Amanda Bania says, “they free up time for keepers to do more enrichment, research, and training, all of which are directly related to improving animal welfare, which is my top priority.” Volunteers contribute more than assistance. “They have enriched my life by bringing more joy and friendship into my workplace,” says Small Mammal House keeper Rebecca Smithson.

Enrichment, in fact, is an essential part of what keepers do. It can mean hanging half a banana from a branch for the golden lion tamarins; providing the spiny lobsters with unopened clam shells; putting honey, apples, and leaf-eater biscuits inside a toy for the giant pandas; giving the Sumatran tigers a durable plastic ball to attack; or leaving scent trails in a cobra enclosure to encourage investigation. Working with the Zoo’s enrichment and training curator, keepers are constantly developing and modifying enrichment ideas to help animals lead more fulfilling and natural lives.

Taking Pride in the Job

While keepers at the Zoo form their own community, they are also part of the larger Zoo staff as well as the community of keepers throughout the country. So they seek out opportunities to contribute to the Zoo and their colleagues. Some are members of the Zoo’s Green Team, which works to champion and implement sustainable practices at the Zoo. Others run the local chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, dedicated to high-quality animal husbandry and supporting professional development.

Linda Moore and veterinarian Luis Padilla tend a bald eagle.. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

To keep improving animal care at the Zoo, keepers attend courses and conferences, pursue advanced degrees, and travel to other zoos to learn from—and educate—their counterparts. In February, Pinto traveled to Mexico’s Africam Safari with two kori bustards and the Zoo’s acting curator of birds to help launch what could be a major breeding program. In the fall, Kerns will begin a master’s program in zoo and aquarium leadership.

“The best part about being a zoo keeper is working with animals, and that’s the very core of the job,” Kerns says. “However, there are two more aspects of zoo keeping that truly give you a sense of pride. The first is the knowledge that we are part of a larger conservation organization that is working to help these species in the wild and conserve their habitats.

“The second is that we’re always striving to teach the public about our animals: through classes, lectures, demonstrations, our volunteers, and even random conversations we strike up while walking through the Zoo. Introducing a child to her first endangered animal or watching a group of teenagers understand their direct impact on a threatened primate in Brazil—that fills you with pride.”

—Gaby Gollub is the senior online editor for Friends of the National Zoo.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(4) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.