What I Want To Be When I Grow Up: A Zookeeper

I hear a lot of students are having a hard time deciding on a major. I hear a lot of grown ups talk about hating their jobs. So here it is: a series of interviews about What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. This is here to help people decide what occupation they want to occupy. Or, it’s here to help people resurrect their dreams of being a grandfather clockmaker or a NERF gun practice dummy.

First occupation in the spotlight: A Spook.

Second occupation in the spotlight: An Archeologist.

Third occupation: A Writer

Fourth occupation: A Scientist

Fifth occupation: A Stay-At-Home-Parent

Sixth occupation: Doctor Dorian from Deadliest Warrior

Today I’m spotlighting an occupation that has a lot of similarities with last Monday’s occupation (a parent.)
Just like a parent, as a zookeeper you can’t help but love your charges even though you’re continuously cleaning up their poo, wiping snotty noses, keeping their cages free from choking hazards, and keeping them from getting loose. And like a parent, you receive beautiful rewards in return for all the love you pour into them. What could be better than a koala hug or a horse’s rapt attention, or a kiss from a seal? Nothing, that’s what. The world would be a better place if more koala hugs went around.
I had the pleasure of an interview with the sweetest zookeeper in the world–
 Callene Rapp – animal keeper
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a jockey, but then I discovered that you have to diet to do that job, and I love food too much!  I’m still a big horse racing fan, and Kentucky Derby Day is my favorite holiday.
Horse jockeys–tall people need not apply
I am of the belief that horses and jellyfish are the best animals in the world. I could watch them for hours and would love oil paintings of them up on my walls if horse art wasn’t so cliche. What is YOUR favorite animal?
Horse art is cliche?  Crap!  I’m going to have to redecorate my entire living room now.  ;o)
Horses are probably my favorite animal, I’ve been hooked on them since I was about two.  But, I generally love all animals because they are all cool in their own unique way.  Some of the neatest animals I’ve worked with at the zoo are the Giant Indian Fruit bats, our zoo has a large group of them free flight in our Jungle exhibit, and it’s so cool to see something that large flying around overhead.  Their wing membranes are incredible.  We actually had some interesting times with the fruit bats recently, and I’m working on a post for my blog about it.
I also think spiders are cool.  Wouldn’t want one for a pet, but I just think they are neat.   The whole web thing is so cool, you know?  I should probably stop or I’ll remember 47 other animals that are my favorite!
What is the smartest animal?
The one that has the ability to make the zookeeper look dumb!  No, seriously.  We joke about how smart we keepers think we are, but invariably an animal will figure out a way to get out of it’s enclosure, trick you into thinking it hasn’t been fed, or dismantle something just as the curator walks by.  The elephants are notorious for playing mind games with their keepers, and don’t even think about trying to get something back from a primate if it’s managed to snag it from you!
Goodnight Gorilla — Fiction or … nonfiction?
Elephants have the reputation for being the smartest land mammals,  and with their long lived memories and complex social structure I’m sure they are right up there.  I do remember once catching a reference on a tv show that pigs were actually smarter than elephants ( I was with an elephant keeper at the time, and I was working with pigs–you can imagine that was interesting!) but I’ve never been able to confirm that.
Smart
What animal is so dumb that all the other zoo animals make fun of it?
The truth is, each animal is smart enough to do what it needs to do to survive in it’s own world.   Intelligence is relative and very, very subjective.  I hesitate to call any animal dumb because that’s the one that will make me look stupid tomorrow, lol! I’ll defer that question on the grounds that I don’t want to get embarrassed at work!
What animal is the scariest–you would NOT want to meet it in a dark alley.
Well, the first animals that came to mind would be a toss up between the zoo’s 14 foot King Cobra, or a chimp.  But I think definitely the chimp would be the most dangerous of the two.  They are super strong, super agressive and capable of doing a great deal of bodily harm.  That or animal curator…those folks are truly scary!
Dangerous
What do you love about your job?
The animals, definitely.  If you are an animal lover, it’s being in pig heaven every day when you go to work. Animals don’t care if you are wearing makeup, having pms, or if you are wearing fashionable clothes.  They just relate to you as you are, and if you bring a good attitude, they will meet you more than halfway.
I also like the fact that my work uniform is khaki, so I never have to worry about color coordinating.  And it hides the invariable daily stains.  I like the fact I don’t sit at a desk all day and that I can move around a lot.  It is a physical enough job that I don’t have to diet, which appeals to my food loving self!
What don’t you love about your job?
It isn’t a high paying job for the most part.  You had better be able to take some of your perks in emotional well being!   Depending on what animals you work with, you may have to be out in all sorts of weather.  The Amphibian and Reptile keepers for example work indoors most of the day, but hoofstock keepers such as myself work outside all the time.  This year, we had the coldest winter and the hottest summer, and you have to do the same things to take care of the animals in good weather and in bad.  Also, you will often have to work holidays, but again if you love what you do, every day can be a holiday!
Generally speaking, what are some qualities one should possess as a zookeeper?
Patience, determination, and self confidence.  You will toil very very had in relative obscurity for years with little recognition, constant criticism, and very little hope of financial reward.  Wait, did I just describe being a writer?
If I wanted to become a zookeeper when I grew up, what are some things I could do in Jr High/High School that could prepare me for the job?
Take science and biology courses.  If you have an opportunity to work with a veterinarian, or at any other animal facility, do it.  Cleaning stalls in a stable is good OTJ training.   If  you can develop good pitchfork technique early on it will always serve you well.  Get used to poop, it will be a major part of your life!  If you are lucky enough to have a zoo in your community, check out their volunteer program.   And also, keep an open mind!  Most people start out thinking they want to work with elephants, or big cats, but there are a lot of other animals out there that are just as cool and they need dedicated keepers too!
So cool! Sounds like a great occupation to me! Where can I sign up for the koala hug and playing fetch with the otters?
If you’re interested to hear more from Callene–go check out her blog, follow her on twitter, and she’s also on Facebook!
Tune in next time for: What I Want To Be When I Grow Up: Fashion Photographer
Have any questions for Callene?
What animal would YOU want to take care of?
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