A Day in the Life of … a zookeeper

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It’s 7:20 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and all is quiet inside the Greensboro Science Center. Behind the scenes, though — inside hallways and cages nestled among trees behind the main science center building off Lawndale Avenue — more than a dozen zookeepers scurry about.

There are 11 part-time and 15 full-time zookeepers here who manage the zoo’s critters, from fish to monkeys, responsible for the feeding and daily care of the animals.

Rachael Campbell, who has worked at the science center for four years, cares for the center’s tiger, fishing cats and red pandas, as well as a cockatoo and macaw. Her daily routine starts with collecting containers of food for each animal, which was prepared by someone else the night before.

She walks over to the fishing cat area with her intern Morgan Vance, a student at Davidson County Community College in the zoo and aquarium sciences program. Inside, she greets the female, Tallulah, and the male, Mako. Fishing cats are both predator and prey — and they greeted their visitors with a hiss. These cats have a long, stocky body, relatively short legs, a broad head, round ears, and a short tail. Their olive-gray fur has black stripes and rows of black spots.

“Mako reminds me of a leopard,” Campbell says. “He is very elusive.”

The fishing cat diet includes small mammals and fish. The cat attracts fish by lightly tapping the water’s surface with its paw, mimicking insect movements. Then, it dives into the water to catch the fish. It can also use its partially webbed paws to scoop fish, frogs, and other prey out of the water or swim underwater to prey on ducks and other aquatic birds.

Today, their diet — courtesy of Campbell — is a small bowl of fish. Campbell spends time training the cats, making them earn their food. The zookeepers call it “enrichment” and all animals get enrichment daily. “It keeps them busy,” Campbell says. “I really enjoy making enrichment that challenges the animals.”

After feeding the fishing cats, Cambell and Vance tag-team cleaning their exhibit — scooping up poop (a not-so-glamourous but regular aspect of the job) and scrubbing out their pond.

Next up: the birds. “Be prepared for some screaming,” Campbell says, unlocking the holding areas for Sidney the cockatoo and Ruby the macaw. “Good morning,” she says to her feathered friends.

And then, she plays peek-a-boo with Sidney. She calls his name, and he peeks his white-feathered head out of the box. “I see you!”

“Birds like these have the intelligence of a 4-year-old,” Campbell says, as she puts their food into puzzle feeders — home to little compartments the birds must open to access the food, another type of enrichment.  “It makes them work for it, and keeps them stimulated. I like to see how complicated of a puzzle feeder I can make to help me understand what their learning abilities are.”

The science center is also home to two red pandas, Usha, the female, and Tiji, the male. They are a breeding pair, “so hopefully in our future” there will be babies, Campbell says. Red pandas have large round heads and short snouts with large pointed ears. They share the giant panda’s “thumb” – a modified wrist bone – that is used to help grasp the bamboo when feeding.

Campbell grabs another one of dozens of keys attached to her belt loop, to unlock one of many doors she will go through in a day. “The worst thing you can do to a zookeeper is mess up their keys,” she says.

For the red pandas’ enrichment, Campbell and Vance spread small, leaf-eater biscuits throughout their exhibit, so they have to work to find their food. Later in the day, Campbell added bamboo to their exhibit. Bamboo constitutes 85 to 95 percent of the red panda’s diet.

A five-minute walk to an outlying corner of the science center’s zoo brings Campbell and Vance to their largest exhibit, home to Axl the tiger. Axl is the brother of Kisa, who died in July.  The zoo’s animal care team, led by Veterinarian Dr. Sam Young, identified a uterine infection and performed emergency surgery. Kisa did well through the surgery but did not make it through recovery.

“It was like losing a co-worker,” Campbell says of the passing of Kisa, whom she cared for four years. “My favorite thing about her was the fact that she was always looking for trouble and loved to agitate her brother.”

While Axl is one of Campbell’s favorite animals at the zoo — second to Gwen the porcupine who she loves so much she got quills tattooed on her arm — she used to be afraid of them. “They really really scared me,” she says. While no longer fearful, Campbell is quite aware of the potential danger surrounding Axl.

As soon as she opens the wooden gate leading to another series of gates into Axl’s holding area, she jumps on her walkie-talkie to let someone know where she is. It’s part of some new safety precautions that Campbell implemented.

On this particular weekday, Axl can be seen in a holding area pushing a large plastic ball against the edge of the cage. “He’s showing off this morning,” Campbell says. “Usually, we can hardly get him up.”

Along with giving Axl some pieces of chopped up chicken, today Campbell and Vance are attempting to weigh Axl, a once-a-month activity. In another holding area next door — the two areas are separated by a large, metal moveable door — Campbell and Vance lay down a large scale board. Morgan shuts the gate and then lifts the metal door, allowing Axl to enter. Campbell uses a long metal rod to feed Axl a piece of chicken, which he gladly accepts, and then uses another piece of chicken to attempt to lure Axl up onto the scale.

But he’s not having it. After several failed attempts, Campbell says, “He is turning into his sister. She was afraid of the scale.”

Next up, it's time for Axl's daily enrichment, making sure he is willing to have his blood drawn when the time comes that it is needed. To do so, Campbell again uses the chicken. Axl follows her command and lays down next to the cage. Vance uses a hook to pull Axl's tail underneath the cage. She grabs onto it, simulating a blood draw from the tail, which prevents zookeepers from having to dart Axl with a tranquilizer.

"Good boy," Campbell says.

Along with cleaning Axl's large exhibit -- including washing the visitor windows -- Campbell performs a thorough safety check. "We want to make sure there are no fallen trees or that no one has come in overnight and cut the fence." She walks the perimeter of the exhibit before leaving and allowing Axl back inside for the day.

From there, all the zookeepers meet up in Friendly Farm -- home to burros, miniature horses and pigs -- or the Discovery House, where visitors can touch some friendly small mammals and reptiles. There, Campbell pops in for a visit to her favorite friend, Gwen the porcupine. "She is so sassy," she says.

Campbell, who graduated from Iowa State University, said she had always wanted to work with animals, and had an option one year in college to work an internship at a zoo. She jumped at the chance and the rest is history.

Being able to build a relationship with wild animals is her favorite part of the job. "As a zookeeper, you need to have a relationship with the animals to make your day work. If the animals did not trust us they more than likely would not move from one place to another when asked, they would not train, and would be stressed. So we invest a lot of our time into relationship building to ensure that our animals are healthy and cooperate through the day."

Not surprisingly, her least favorite part of being a zookeeper is the death of an animal. "We spend 40-plus hours a week caring for the animals, that they kind of become your co-workers. We depend on each other to get through the day. Part of an animal's survival instinct is to mask any symptoms that may make them seem weak, which means we need to really know our animals to be able to tell if they are sick. Even if we notice these symptoms sometimes there is just nothing we can do. A good majority of the animal kingdom does not have a large lifespan so death is just a part of life that we learn to deal with."

Campbell really hopes to work with lions again someday. "At a previous job, I worked with lions and thoroughly enjoyed them. It would really like to get the chance to work with them again one day."

But her dream animal to work with? The Sumatran rhinoceros. "There are none in captivity in the United States, that means I would have to travel to Sumatra, which would be an amazing experience!"