So Many Mammals, So Little Time…

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Throwing apples to a rhino and showering in giraffe saliva were truly once in a lifetime experiences for my fellow interns and me. Yet for Torrey Pillsbury and Michele Gaffney, Senior Keepers at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, this was just an average day at work. They are responsible for dozens of herds out in the vast fields of the Wild Animal Park. The Park is divided up into seven areas, and keepers are assigned to work in one of those locations, such as the Asian Plains exhibit that we visited. Keepers are automatically reassigned every couple of years, providing them with a diverse array of skills, as well as new animals to meet and interact with.

We began our trip the same way Ms. Gaffney and Ms. Pillsbury begin their average workday, by entering the keeper trailer and perusing the Red Books. Red Books are similar to diaries; this is where keepers record daily observations about the animals in their enclosures. Any notes on abnormal behavior, health, and enrichment are all added to the Red Book. I was amazed at how much organization and meticulous paperwork is necessary to take care of zoo animals.

After leaving the trailer, we clambered into the back of a keeper truck, seated comfortably on bales of hay and ready for our personal safari. As the vehicle trundled along through the plains of Asia, Ms. Gaffney pointed out the animals that we passed, telling anecdotes about many of them. I was astounded at the knowledge that keepers possess for the dozens of species of hoofstock and other mammals out in the field. This made sense, however, once I got a sense of what their job really entails.

Keepers at the Wild Animal Park spend a fair amount of time filling food troughs, cleaning out drinkers, and assisting veterinarians with medical examinations. The bulk of their responsibility, however, lies in observation. The keepers must count each animal individually to make sure that there is the correct number of individuals representing each species. These daily counts are crucial, especially in large enclosures such as those at the Park. They also spend time simply observing the animals and looking for abnormal behaviors. Keepers develop an understanding for the basic behaviors of each species, and they can tell if an animal is ill or upset. With so many animals to care for, however, it is impossible to watch all of them all the time. The keepers do their best to make sure that no animal slips their notice.

After all the paperwork, counting, and physical exertion, the most rewarding part of a keeper’s job was revealed: interacting with the animals! The Indian rhinos walked right up to our truck and opened their mouths wide for a sweet treat, and the giraffes nearly knocked us over in their enthusiasm for the acacia leaves we offered them. There is really no other career that can compare to caring for a field full of wild animals every day.

Sara, Careers Team