Date: July 23, 2013
Place: National Zoo, Washington DC
Interview: Kristen Clark and Juan Rodriguez
Meet Kristen and Juan, Zoo Keepers at the National Zoo. They talk about their job duties including how they train the animals and what you can do to get started.
Kristen Clark, Zoo Keeper at the Great Cats and Bears Unit, National Zoo: First thing in the morning, we go around and check all the animals, administer medications [give medicine] if we need to. Just make sure everyone's okay and then we start cleaning yards and preparing diets [food] for the cats and we prepare enrichment [toys and food treats used to help recreate an animal’s natural habitat] for the animals before they go out [outside] for the day.
Juan Rodriguez, Zoo Keeper at the Asia Trail, National Zoo: We'll go in and we'll set up the [outdoor] yards in the morning before we let them out. We'll put food out into the different parts of the habitat [where the animals live and eat]. We like to encourage the animals to search for the food and sort of stimulate their natural instincts, their natural behaviors of going out, sniffing out their food.
The really great thing about sloth bears, especially for the cubs, is that even though they're in the same enclosure [stall] every night, as long as you change their structures of the logs or you put a different enrichment item [toys and food treats used to help recreate an animal's natural habitat] into the stall, it's almost like giving a brand new habitat [where the animals live and eat] every night.
Kristen: The training is done, basically, to check every part of their bodies every day without actually being able to touch them. We use training for medical reasons only, there are no special tricks or anything that we ask them for. If we do this [hold index finger and thumb in the shape of an "L"], they open their mouths, so we can check their teeth. They're trained for voluntary injections [shots]. We're also working on training them for blood draws from their tail. So anything we can do voluntarily with the animals without having to anesthetize [giving medicine to put an animal in a temporary relaxed or sleeping state] them is something that we work for.
Relationships with the animals
The interactions [routines] on a daily basis that you have with your animals and there is a relationship there. A lot of people just say "Oh it's a lion or a tiger," but these lions know us. They trust us. They train for us and to us it's just like having a pet at home. You know, we cry when they are sick and we’re happy when they have babies. And so just being part of their lives every day and being responsible for their care is the best part for me.
Advice for kids
Particularly if they're interested in animal work, I would suggest just starting with dog walking or pet sitting in their neighborhood. That's a really good way to get into the industry [career] at a very early age. And then when you get older, you can become a keeper aid at the zoo and actually learn what it takes to be a zoo keeper and sort of the care of exotic [wild] animals.