A Zookeeper’s Life


My Life is a Zoo premieres on Nat Geo WILD, Monday April 26th at 10 PM ET/PT.

Over 175 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year. To meet the demands of the exotic animal business, zookeepers must complete a series of behind-the-scenes tasks on a daily basis to keep their animals healthy and happy.

During the hours zoos are open to the public, you can learn about exotic and regional animal species, cutting-edge research programs and conservation efforts. Perhaps you attend a giraffe feeding or observe a rare Sumatran tiger. But despite these encounters, few of us open up those closed exhibit doors to learn what really happens behind-the-scenes at a zoo.

For example, at many zoos around the country, important research – like the impact of fungus on amphibian populations – is conducted in tucked-away laboratories…

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… and animals are treated at specialized critical care hospitals.

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So join me as we stroll through a zoo’s gates and encounter animal keepers as they go about their daily routines.

Before we go behind-the-scenes at the Asian elephant house at the National Zoological Park, a foot bath is required. Step onto this blue mat to disinfect the bottom of your shoes. We don’t want to track in germs, do we?

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Meet elephant keepers Sean Royals and Marie Galloway. They start their morning at 6:30am, reading the notes from the previous day and going through the “daily check,” which includes walking the perimeter, evaluating the exhibit and preparing for elephant interaction.

A zookeeper evaluates his or her animals on a daily basis through physical evaluations and behavior observation. As many zoos have few veterinarians on staff, the zookeeper is frequently the first line of defense for an animal’s health.

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Below, Sean draws blood from a vein behind an elephant’s ear. Sometimes urine samples are taken as well.

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As each elephant has his or her own dietary needs, bins help the trainers and volunteers separate meals according to a nutritionist’s guideline.

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Fresh foods, vitamin supplements and training treats (such as these apple fiber biscuits) are dispersed.

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Stalls are cleaned out with a shovel and wheelbarrow…..

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Elephants are bathed…..

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….. and then rewarded with a treat.

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Over at the Andean bear exhibit, we have to speak in hushed voices, as a mother bear rests with her newborn cubs.

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Don’t forget the footbath – this must be done every single time you enter in an animal’s home.

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Monitors allows the Andean bear keepers to observe the animals without disturbing them during this important bonding period.

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Animal keeper Karen Abbott explained to me the process for cleaning out the bears’ dens. They practice was is called “protected contact” with the animals. This safety measure involves shifting the bears from one space into another. Below, a turned crank opens a door to the outside exhibit area, encouraging the bear to leave his den. Then, Karen is able to drop a door, sealing the den from the bear outside. By using this method, she can safely clean out the exhibit interiors and exteriors.

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Every Wednesday, bears are weighed inside this crate.

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Approved enrichment toys are given to the zoo animals. These items stimulate the animals physically and mentally. Below is one of the Andean bears’ favorite toys – which is heavier than it looks!

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Through these specialized, daily routines, zookeepers work to keep their animals healthy in body and mind.

All photos were taken by Jodi Kendall at the National Zoological Park and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo.

Interested in learning more about life in the zoo? Check out the premiere of My Life is a Zoo on Nat Geo WILD, Monday April 26th at 10 PM ET/PT.