Next time you are at an aquarium or zoo, be forewarned that zookeepers are everywhere and that they can hear you. Although you might not see them, they can hear your conversations. I have heard extremes behind those walls firsthand. Everything between "That must be such a fun job, playing with the birds all day,” to "Honey, this is why you have to go to college, or else you will be picking up after dirty animals.” The reality, of course, lies somewhere in-between these statements.
The second statement always made me laugh because to become a zookeeper you will need a 2- or 4-year degree, in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, animal behavior, psychology or a related science field. Picking up after a zoo bird is not only a privilege but also one of the most competitive jobs in the professional animal field. Zookeeper is a career goal, not a fallback position.
In addition to going to a university, many applicants find themselves needing to volunteer or intern at an animal facility prior to getting paid. Those who want to train birds for a living should consider becoming a Certified Professional Bird Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPBT-KA) through the The International Avian Trainers Certification Board to give them a further advantage.
Yes, zookeepers are cleaners but they are also animal trainers, construction workers, landscapers, chefs, public speakers, authors and bookkeepers.
If you do not work in the bird show department, being able to apply training techniques will only help you. Avian zookeepers train husbandry behaviors such as allowing to voluntarily give blood, offering their feet for nail trims, and opening their mouth for oral inspections. One of the most amazing behaviors I saw trained was from a zoo in Ohio. Their umbrella cockatoo would voluntarily present her wing to give a blood sample. The cockatoo was an animal ambassador for the outreach program and would even do this behavior off zoo grounds in front of many strangers.
The cockatoo had a medical condition in which the veterinarian wanted to analyze a blood sample quarterly throughout the year. Grabbing the bird up in a towel to get the blood sample would have been detrimental to the keeper’s relationship. The bird might have also stopped behaving on the educational presentations. By being innovative the keepers were able to train the bird to cooperate in her own healthcare. Quarterly they would get a blood sample and the rest of the time the keepers would go through the motions, but not actually prick the bird with the needle. Zookeepers are creative.
"Having the opportunity to interact with exotic animals in a manner where they are trusting and able to voluntarily participate in their own healthcare, in the absence of restraint or sedation is an incredible experience that is very rewarding for an animal trainer,” said Gary Siddall, Deputy Director of the Aquarium of Niagara, in Niagara Falls, NY. He has been working with animals professionally for eight years.
"The most rewarding part of working with animals,” he added, "has been the opportunity to develop relationships with some amazing animals.”
Siddall said that while training animals at zoos and aquariums can seem very different than working with animals at home, the same principles should apply. "A focus on positive reinforcement, building positive relationships, and avoiding the use of punishers are the first steps in building a successful animal trainer at home or in a professional setting,” he explained.
Another way that zookeepers improve their relationships with the animals in their care is by providing enrichment. Enrichment allows birds in our care to make choices and use their problem-solving skills to interact with keepers and devices for rewards. Enrichment promotes both mental and physical stimulation which is best practice for both birds living in a home or a zoo.
Aside from daily cleaning, most animal exhibits need routine maintenance. This includes finding new perching, rearranging branches and adding nesting materials like, leaves, dirt and sand to nest boxes. Horticulture also comes in play, with weed whacking, trimming trees and mowing the grass. Saving the grass clippings, tree branches and weeds make great enrichment. These items can be eaten, used as new bedding or to promote foraging. Being able to identify toxic and nontoxic plants is essential.
The amount of paperwork zookeepers complete is remarkable. Records of everything you can imagine are kept, including records of daily keeper operations, enrichment, medicine, training, how many people individual animals have encountered that day and even logs for defecating and egg laying. Many bird keepers care for hundreds of birds and often times a few mammals, reptiles or amphibians.
From raising money to going on field research trips, keepers are heavily involved in making conservation happen in order to help save animals. Both pet owners and zookeepers love their animals. Pet caregivers and zookeepers are trainers, record keepers and caregivers. And yes, hosing off poop is one of the parts of the job.
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