Bree Dingmann shatters young peoples’ illusions all the time.
The Como Park zookeeper meets frequently with students who are thinking about a degree in biology or zoology. She tells them what it takes to pursue a career as a keeper. Then she levels with them: Zookeepers do not get to play with animals all day. “It’s such a misconception,” says Dingmann, a member of Local 1842.
“It’s far from the truth,” says Larry Vorwerk, a member of Local 1929 and a keeper at The Minnesota Zoo since it opened in 1978.
In fact, much of a keeper’s day is underwhelmingly routine: reading reports, checking animals’ health, cleaning exhibits, preparing the animals’ diets, feeding the animals, moving the animals from their holding areas to their exhibits, cleaning the holding areas, feeding the animals again, moving the animals again, writing reports.
“It’s pretty basic work that isn’t so glamorous,” Vorwerk says. “If you’re scraping manure off the walls of the macaques cages, there’s nothing glorious about that part of the job.”
“There are at least three or four hours every day that are exactly the same,” says Local 1842’s Peter Lee, a keeper at Como since 1988. “It’s incredibly routine, a lot of it. It has to happen 365 days a year. It has to happen in this order. If you can’t handle routine, you can’t be a zookeeper.”
Yet the rest of the job is completely unpredictable. “Anything can happen on any given day, and frequently does,” Lee says. “If you can’t deal with moving outside of your comfort zone, you can’t really be a zookeeper, either.”
“Animals don’t behave exactly the same from one day to the next,” Vorwerk says. “There’s always changes of seasons, animals being born, animals that are transferred in or out of here. No two days are exactly alike.”
“That’s what makes our job so special,” Dingmann says.
Job keeps changing
When Lee and Vorwerk started, you could get a job with just a high school diploma. Now college degrees (which they both have) are mandatory. The physical chores remain, but other duties have expanded, including educating the public, connecting with worldwide networks for animal care and conservation, and developing animal training and enrichment,.
At both zoos, almost all keepers give public talks or group tours. That’s not always easy for people who have, after all, chosen to work with animals. “You can’t walk from point A to point B without being an unofficial ambassador for the zoo,” Lee says. “Answering simple questions to more philosophical ones. We have anti-zoo people visiting, and you have to gracefully engage them.”
An explosion in research has changed animals’ care and diets. Computers, the internet and animal-specific listserves make any keeper part of far-flung networks, including worldwide conservation efforts for endangered habitat and species, Vorwerk says.
“We try to make a difference for the animals that we have,” Dingmann says. “That’s the reason we’re here.”
Betcha didn’t know
Adapted from the July/August 2009 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine