As the need to protect and preserve wildlife and vanishing habitats has increased, a zookeeper's role as educator and wildlife ambassador has become essential. During National Zoo Keeper Week, we took time to acknowledge amazing animal care staff at Zoo New England for the important work they do.

Spotlight on:

Zookeeper Maggie Sawyer and the red kangaroo

Kangaroo and keepersWhich area do you work in, and how long have you been at that Zoo?

I work in the Bird’s World section of Franklin Park Zoo, and I've worked at the Zoo for four years.

What's your favorite animal to work with and why?

I'm the primary red kangaroo trainer, and I love working with our oldest female kangaroo. The training program is relatively new, but I've been able to accomplish a lot, and it’s been fun learning and training with her. Through the training, I've been able to do pouch checks along with the staff from the Zoo hospital.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

I always wanted to have a career working with animals, and this job allows me to do that in an environment that also promotes education and conservation. This job has let me do and see a lot of things that I would not have been able to otherwise.

Do you have any advice for people thinking of pursuing a zookeeper career?

Get as much experience as you can! Volunteer, intern, and spend as much time as you can at zoos, wildlife centers, etc. Most keepers have done multiple internships and worked countless unpaid hours before they were able to land a full-time zookeeper job.

Senior zookeeper Matt Stierhof and the ring-tailed lemurs

Lemur and keeperWhich area do you work in, and how long have you been at that Zoo?

I work in the Tropical Forest area at Franklin Park Zoo and I’ve been a zookeeper here for two years. I started at the Zoo as an animal care intern and was hired full-time shortly after graduating with a degree in zoology.

What is your favorite animal to work with and why?

It’s difficult to choose one favorite animal as I enjoy working with all the animals within the Tropical Forest. Recently, I’ve been doing extensive training with one of our female ring-tailed lemurs. Here at Zoo New England, training is very important for the overall well being of our collection animals as it allows us to take better care of them. It’s a way for us as zookeepers to build a relationship with animals and have them actively participate in their own healthcare. This can be very enriching and positive for them and especially rewarding for us as trainers. Working with our lemurs has been an incredible learning experience. Ring-tailed lemurs have unique personalities and they also rely heavily on their olfactory (smell) senses. This allows me to provide innovative enrichment for them on a daily basis which may consist of perfumes, browse, puzzle feeders and so much more.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

I always dreamed of having a career working with animals and love teaching others about nature. Becoming a zookeeper allows me to work with incredible animals and inspire zoo guests every day. Best job in the world!

Do you have any advice for people thinking of pursuing a zookeeper career?

I definitely recommend it! Starting as an intern was a great way to break into the field. My advice would be to start as a volunteer or intern, learn about the day to day tasks and always be open to trying something new. It’s a very physical job where you will get dirty and work in all weather conditions. You will meet amazing people in the zoo field, work with incredible animals, and learn something new every day.

Zookeeper Melissa Durham and the red pandas

RedpandatrainingWhat’s your role at the Zoo?

I’m a zookeeper in the Children’s Zoo at Franklin Park Zoo. In the Children's Zoo, we’re responsible for the care of education program animals as well as various other species including red pandas, an Amur leopard, prairie dogs, Poitou donkeys, barn owls, Guinea hogs and more. I’ve been at Franklin Park Zoo for almost five years and originally started in the Hooves and Horns section of the Zoo.

Do you have a favorite animal you’ve worked with at the Zoo?

When I first started here, I had a particular affinity for otters and birds of prey, but within the first few months I developed a soft spot for a majority of the animals I worked with. When I moved from Hooves and Horns to the Children’s Zoo, I got the chance to work with the red pandas for the first time in my life. I immediately fell in love with them (how could you not!) and I’m now their primary trainer.

Red pandas are more on the shy side, so it took a while to develop the trust you need to be able to train with them. I’ve been able to train both our pandas to voluntarily get on a scale for weights and receive injections. Carys, our female panda, is far more interested in training, and I’ve been able to do much more with her. She currently knows seven behaviors (including learning how to hold still for an ultrasound), and her repertoire is growing. Working with the animals to do these voluntary behaviors makes daily care as well as veterinary procedures less stressful on both staff and animals.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

Originally, I wanted to do marine research -- live on a boat, scuba dive everyday, that kind of thing. But after doing that for part of my college career I realized that it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I interned in the Animal Programs department at the Florida Aquarium, and it was amazing to see how much care those keepers gave to their animals, as well as the dedication to educating the public about the animals they cared for.  I immediately fell in love with the job and all that goes with it. Now I can’t imagine having any other kind of life.

What’s your advice to future zookeepers?

Do as many volunteer/ intern positions as possible before you leave college. Most internships are unpaid, so it can be easier on you to intern during this time in your life. And when you do finally land that zookeeper position, make sure you pay attention to the “why” of each task you do. One day you’ll be training someone, and this will help to make the information stick.

Senior zookeeper Kristin Cibotti and the white-bearded wildebeest

Wildebeest Training

What’s your role at the Zoo?

At Franklin Park Zoo, I’m a senior keeper in the Hooves and Horns department, an area that’s responsible for the care of animals including zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, tigers, lion and more. I've been a full time employee for three years now, although four years prior to that, I worked as a temp while I completed my undergraduate degree, making it a total of seven years at Franklin Park Zoo.

Do you have a favorite animal you’ve worked with at the Zoo?

At one point or another I've favored every animal I've worked with. However, I now have a major soft spot for the white-bearded wildebeest. They’re a naturally flighty animal, and historically keepers have had to be pretty hands off when it came to their care. In 2012, we received a young male wildebeest, and I was able to develop an operant conditioning training program with him. Throughout the last two years, I've established a very trusting relationship with him. Because of that, through protected contact I've been able to train and prepare him for basic medical procedures, such as obtaining weights, oral exams, and body condition exams.

This training is an effort to keep all necessary veterinary procedures as low stress as possible for the animal. The training itself is voluntary on the wildebeest's part and can be very mentally stimulating. It’s also both challenging and rewarding for me and requires that I have a strong understanding of the animal as an individual and how best to present new information to him.

Image at right: Kristin uses the hand signal for "open" so she can inspect the wildebeest's teeth and lips.

What inspired you to become a zookeeper?

Back when I was a senior in high school I came to the Zoo seeking an internship. I love animals, but I never considered zookeeping as a career. I immediately fell in love with the care the keepers give to the animals. Their attentiveness to all the animals’ physical and mental needs was inspiring, and that's when I realized that I wanted to be a part of the Zoo.

What’s your advice to future zookeepers?

If you’re interested in becoming a zookeeper, it’s important to never give up and to not get discouraged. The career itself is extremely challenging, and the better you're able to respond to those challenges, the more dynamic a keeper you'll be.

Animal Care at Zoo New England

Animals in the wild spend much of their time and energy finding food, building homes, defending their territories and escaping predators. Zoo life is more predictable, as most animals’ resources are provided for them. It’s our job to offer them creative ways to use that energy—that’s where enrichment comes in.