Zoo Keepers in the Field
Once upon a time, caring for animals in zoos revolved around the basics: feeding, watering, and cleaning. But as zoos have evolved, conservation education and animal husbandry have become vital components of animal care. Continuing education and supplemental training are now a necessity for animal care providers who want to build a career in the zoo world.
Longtime zoo supporter (and former Zoo Commission President) Shelby Jean Kaplan Sloan established the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund in 2003 to provide keepers with opportunities for hands-on field experiences. Upon completing their fieldwork, they share their insights with their colleagues and apply what they’ve learned to their work with the Zoo’s animals.
“If you don’t go out and learn more, you stagnate,” Sloan says of her motivation in establishing the fund. “And we want our Zoo to be on the cusp of things. If we provide opportunities for our staff to broaden their perspectives and learn, it benefits all of us who are part of the Zoo.”
The first recipient of the grant was Senior Animal Keeper [now Curator of Mammals] Candace Sclimenti, who used the funding to spend six weeks in the summer of 2003 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Sanctuary [now the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust] in northern Zambia. At the time, she was a full-time keeper and graduate student working on her primatology master’s thesis. Working with the 100-plus chimps at the sanctuary—many of whom were youngsters confiscated from poachers and smugglers—was a golden opportunity to glean information for her research and to better inform her work as an animal keeper. She returned with a wealth of experiences and insights, both professional and personal.
“Because of my zookeeping experience, I was allowed a more hands-on experience than previous volunteers/researchers at Chimfunshi,” Sclimenti says. “I was conducting research for my thesis, which focused on the integration and socialization of young juvenile chimps. My research directly applied to my job at the Zoo because we were in the middle of introducing Jean, Jake, and Zoe to the chimpanzee troop.”
The owners and managers of Chimfunshi, Dave and Sheila Siddle, had more than 20 years of experience with chimpanzee rehabilitation and introductions, and Sclimenti was able to observe and participate in a few introductions during her stay. “It was very enlightening to study other styles and methods of chimp introductions,” she says. “I returned to the Zoo with the confidence that we really know what we’re doing. Realizing how diligent we are with not only their care, but also the amount of thought and preparation that goes into specific events, was a real benefit. I think sometimes we take so much for granted; going to Chimfunshi put things back into perspective for me.”
Often fieldwork yields invaluable information about species that the majority of people (even those who work closely with them in zoos) will only ever see in a captive setting. In 2006, Animal Keeper Nancy Bunn spent a month tracking wild orangutans through the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, to document their movements, diets, behaviors, and what plants they might have been eating for medicinal purposes.
“Orangutans are animals I’ve always had a passion for because I think they’re incredible. And to get to see them in the wild was a dream come true,” says Bunn.
When Bunn returned to the Zoo after seeing orangutans in the wild, she brought with her a new appreciation for them, which in turn benefited the orangutans here.
“They are so athletic, so intelligent, and seeing them traveling in the treetops just increased my passion for them. As far as the orangutans at the Zoo, it’s so important that they have lots of climbing apparatus, and we’ve done that with our exhibit. We also try to add some of the natural diet they would get in the wild to their menu here. I’m just so proud of our exhibit and the care we give to our orangutans,” Bunn reflects.
Primates have proved particularly popular among our animal keepers’ field study pursuits. In addition to Sclimenti and Bunn, Cori Monetti used her Sloan grant funding to travel to Africa to work with orphaned apes at the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, Helene Jutras studied white-fronted brown lemurs in Madagascar, and Tami Goodson conducted research at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.
But other species have also benefited from the program, including our marine mammals. Two years ago, Animal Keeper Alexis Higgins was awarded the grant to travel to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, where she joined staff there in their ongoing study of seal diets.
“In addition to learning various aspects of the care and study of wild and captive harbor seals at the SeaLife Center, I learned about their research that tracks the diet of a group of the Center’s captive harbor seals,” says Higgins. “The researchers were not only investigating the potential causes of declining harbor seal populations, but also trying to understand why populations have not recovered.”
Higgins also spent time with the marine mammal husbandry staff—an experience that has become particularly useful now that the Zoo has its first harbor seal pup. “Because of the birth of their seal pup the previous year, I was able to gain valuable insight into the birthing process, which was very beneficial.
“My time in Alaska gave me a new perspective on the seals that I care for every day, and what great ambassadors they are for their species,” Higgins observes. “The experience also gave me a broader appreciation for what I do. As a keeper, your profession is always changing. That’s why professional development conferences and field study opportunities are important. They allow you to challenge yourself and grow. I think that’s really important because you want to provide the highest level of care to these animals.”
As former Senior Animal Keeper Josh Sisk learned, conservation work relies not only on a solid knowledge of the wildlife in question, but also the humans who share their habitat.
In 2008, Sisk went to Africa with the grant he received from the Sloan Fund. The Earthwatch Institute offered an opportunity for animal keepers to travel to Kenya, where they took part in an ongoing field research project investigating the decline in Grevy’s zebra populations. At the time, Sisk was the caretaker for the Zoo’s recently acquired Grevy’s zebras. The two-week expedition granted him a much broader understanding of the conservation challenges that the animals face.
“You see pictures of these zebras in the wild, but to actually be there and see them gave me a much better perspective of the landscape, how they live, and what’s threatening them,” Sisk recalls. Native to eastern Africa, the Grevy’s zebra shares land with the Samburu tribes. Part of the Earthwatch project involved conducting interviews with tribe members. “What we learned was that they aren’t really concerned about the zebra, because these are people who are struggling to get water and food for their own survival,” he says. “So saving the Grevy’s zebra isn’t a priority. Seeing the habitat where the cattle have eaten all the grass down to the dirt—acres and acres just wiped out—you understand what the zebras are up against. It was a major reality check and a humbling experience to see what the tribal people go through in the same environment.”
Upon his return , Sisk was eager to communicate what he’d learned with Zoo staff and visitors. “I was able to come back and share this information with the public, and that’s one of our main goals: to get the word of conservation out.”
One of the Zoo’s areas of expertise is in herpetology, and the care of reptiles and amphibians has changed dramatically in recent years. Learning more about how these animals are connected to us has led to a whole new perspective on them. Where once they were regarded as expendable curiosities, we now know that they are important indicators of environmental health. Animal Keeper Jim Haigwood used his Sloan Grant to attend one of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) most impressive professional development programs, Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management Course (Croc School) at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida.
“It’s the first hands-on school of its kind where you work with the animals and also do classroom work,” Haigwood explains. “St. Augustine is the only zoo that has every species of crocodilian in the world, so it really was a very unique opportunity. People from all over the world attend every year, so it’s a great way to collaborate with people and make contacts.”
Haigwood points out that while crocodilians have been on the earth for more than 200 million years, today, half of them are threatened with extinction. One of the world’s most endangered crocodilians, the gharial, has never been bred in a North American zoo. The Zoo has two false gharials (also known as the Malay gharial), which may prove critical for the future survival of the species. [Note: The preferred name for the false gharial is now “tomistoma.” As of this posting, there are currently gharials and tomistomas in residence at the L.A. Zoo.]
“We are still learning a lot about crocodilians,” Haigwood says. “We have a lot to discover about their biology and reproducing them in captivity, and this school is really helping to promote that.”
Improving the quality of life for others, both human and non-human, is an important component of the philosophy behind the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund.
“I love the Zoo, and I love the people who work at the Zoo because they have this sense of something outside of themselves being so important,” Sloan remarks. “Without people who love animals and who want to preserve the species, we wouldn’t have zoos. They make the world a better place for all of us.”
This article originally ran in the Fall 2010 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership. For information about how you can celebrate National Zoo Keeper Week, please visit lazoo.org/zookeeperweek. #NZKW2018