Friday, August 17, 2007

Go Wild!

Do you love animals? Do you dream of working with animals? A zookeeper gets to work with all kinds of animals everyday. They're the ones who work behind the scenes at zoos, making sure the animals are content and active. Recently, New Moon sat down with Wendy Buczynski; a zookeeper from the Lake Superior Zoo.

New Moon: How long have you been a zookeeper?
Wendy Buczynski: 20 years.

Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
Actually, no. I was going to be the world’s best veterinarian. I got a little sidetracked.

Growing up did you ever think of 'zookeeper' as a career?
No because I was going to be a vet! I want to be one since I was five.

How did that work out? Did you start off by going to school to be a veterinarian?
No. My path was clear until 11th grade. All of the sudden the thought of 8 more years of school passed senior. I just couldn’t stomach it. So I went for a 2 year associate degree in veterinary technology.

Can you go to any school for that degree or is that a special school?
It was a special school. The University of Minnesota at Waseca. A college which has since been closed down.

Are there special classes you have to take to get an associate degree in veterinary technology?
Yeah, you have to take the college biology, college chemistry, college math, all that. All that interesting stuff and then you have your practicals. Where you actually work with the animals and draw blood and take x-rays. Back in those days they didn’t let us do too much. Fill out records, file correctly.

So did you get a mentor or was it all just in-the-class learning?
No. I was working as a vet technician and you can’t live on what a vet tech makes. My husband at the time got laid off and so I had to get another job. So I got a job at the Duluth Clinic. Eventually, the clinic kept offering more hours and the vet clinic was taking more and more hours away so I just shuffled over to the clinic. And I worked there until one day my neighbor saw an ad that they were running the zookeeper test in the paper and he said ‘you should apply for this because you really like animals’. And I got the job.

Can you describe a typical day as a zookeeper? Do you all have the same job or do you come in and get assigned different jobs?
At this particular zoo you come in and your assigned to work in a certain area. And then you take care of the animals in that area. And depending on what animals there are that depends on what you have to do.

Do you have to know about every animal because you don’t know where you’re going to go?
Well, I do because I work at all the rotations. So some of us work at every single area but some only work at specific areas. And when you’re a ‘floater’ and work everywhere you’re not expected to do anything extra like enrichment; you’re expected to take care of the animals and make sure everything is done. Although if they want to do the ‘extra’ work they sure can; they’re just not required to. They do clean but if there is a problem like a pump doesn’t work they aren’t expected to fix it. They can leave it and wait for me to come back.
9. Okay, are “floaters” considered zookeepers even though they don’t have the same responsibilities as you?
Oh, yeah.

What’s the difference between you and the “floaters” then?
Well, we’re a Union so seniority rules. So the highest senior gets to pick where they want to work. And some people chose to ‘float’ because they liked the variety of working in different areas.

How about coworkers? Do you have to work with each other a lot or is it a more independent job?
Well, we work with the public a lot. Right now we are stretched really thin; we’re at minimum staff. Right now I’m training in a new zookeeper. She’ll be here for 6 months of training then she can start. It’ll be nice; we’ll get some relief.

What’s a typical work schedule? Do you have to work weekends?
My days off are on Thursday and Friday; I have to work on weekends.

How long are the hours?
Only 8am to 5pm.

Does everyone rotate so there’s always someone here to take care of the animals?
There’s always someone here. Again it’s the seniority thing. By the time they got down to me there wasn’t any weekends open.

Is there a certain schedule you have to follow during the day; like feeding at specific times?
No, it’s all pretty much common sense. You do things that need to be done. We do have a rule that there needs to be two zookeepers to work with the ‘dangerous’ animals. That’s for safety reasons.

And what are the ‘dangerous’ animals?
In my area it would be the tigers. There also the leopards, cougars, brown bears, polar bears and the lion. So when we have to go in the work we have to schedule a time with our partners, mine is a zookeeper who works in the area next to mine, to take care of those animals together.

Since you see these animals every day you get to know their behavior. What happens when something isn’t right?
In the case of a big animal I would take it off exhibit.

And how would you get the animal off exhibit?
They’re pretty well trained, thankfully. It has taken years for that to happen. Otherwise you could use food to lure them in. They’re just used to the routine. So then you’d call in the vet to look at them if it was bad enough.

What happens when an animals dies at the zoo?
When we were accredited every animal that died would have to be sent down to the state lab to have a necropsy. Now that we’re no longer accredited it’s up to the vet to decide if the animal needs to go down for an official necropsy or she can handle it here.

What is a necropsy?
That’s just the animal term for autopsy.

Being a zookeeper, what are the pros and cons?
Oh, it’s just the best job in the world. It is always simulating and it is never boring. It’s an active job, but it’s not really grueling.

So you don’t fall into a routine where you just trying to get things done.
Well, you try to have a routine so things do get done. But things are always varied and working with animals is great.
Is part of your job to educate the public?
No, not really. We have such a good education department here and that’s their job. But because of where I am working right now, I frequently have to interact with the public. All of us are required to interact with the public if the occasion arises.

Is there a special uniform that zookeepers have to wear to work?
It really varies from zoo to zoo. Mostly, though, we wear khakis and a zoo shirt. Bigger zoos will usually pay for uniforms.

Do you think this job has any difficulties for women?
No. I have never experienced anything like that. The only real problem I have is being short. It seems like everything is set up for a tall person.

So, do you have any advice for girls who want to be zookeepers?
It’s a tough field to get into because there are not many job openings, the pay is low, the hours are long, the schedule usually…sinks so you have to really like what you’re doing. But if you can get the chance to volunteer at a zoo or get into an internship (which is usually unpaid) when you can actually see what zookeepers do and experience it. If you decide to pursue it, know that more and more zoos, especially the accredited ones, require that bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in some kind of science. And if you want to climb the ladder in the zoo world you have to be ready to move. So you can be a zookeeper and get a lot of experience and then you’d apply to be a lead keeper somewhere. After that you could become a curator and then, the highest, the director of a zoo. They do fundraising and handle most of the business.

Is that a recommendation?
They (girls) have to absolutely love animals; they have to love everything about animals. But if they enjoy it; go for it.

What if they don’t like poop?
Then being a zookeeper is not for you. You have to love everything about it. And you have to love all animal; you can’t say ‘I want to be a zookeeper because I really love animals, but I don’t like spiders. Well, spiders are animals and you might have to take care of one.

When you first become a zookeeper do you have to research all the animals the zoo has?
It’s not a requirement, but it’s a really good idea. Also you don’t really look at what’s affecting the species as a whole; you just focus in on the animal at the zoo and look at their needs.

Is there ever a day when you just think to yourself ‘why did I choose this’?
Payday. Christmas morning when you’re getting up at 6am to go to work because it didn’t land on your day off.

You don’t get holidays off?
If it falls on your day off you get the day off. If it’s your day to work, you get to go to work. Unless you use vacation time.

What happens when there’s an emergency or bad weather and no one can come to work?
We have never had a time when no one could come in. There’s always been at least two people at the zoo. But if something did happen and no one could get in, the animals would be fine. They are all very well fed and they’d be okay for a day. I wouldn’t want to leave them for two days but for one they’d be fine.

What happens when you get a new animal that the zoo has never had before? Is there a training program to learn how to take care of it?
There isn’t a training program. Whatever area that animal would be ultimately going to they, of course, would research the heck out of it. And the person who is in charge of Animal Care would get all the paperwork from wherever that animal came from. So everyone would learn a lot from that and there would be calls back-and-forth from the place the animal came from.

Is there a lot of exchanges of animals between zoos?
It depends on if the zoo is accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But yeah there are mating programs and transfers. Zoos hardly ever purchase animal when they’re accredited because you have animals that belong to other zoos. You just house them. There are breeding loans, there’s hardly any buying and selling going on.

As zookeepers do you get to travel around and research animals?
One zookeeper right now is in Panama for two months. Her favorite species is bats; so she’s studying bats down in Panama . But she had to use up all of her vacation and all of her sick leave and took some days unpaid.

Do animals at the zoo have a different diet than wild animals?
Yes they do. We have to alter their diet but there is a commercial diet made by Purina and other companies. They make a chow for virtually every animal you can think of. We use that for most of the animals, but not all of them. Animals will also get fresh fruit. Some have to adapt to the fruits and vegetables that grow up here but you can also supplement their diets.

Even cockroaches?
*laughs* No.

What do you enjoy doing the most at the zoo?
My favorite part is the nutrition and I also enjoy enrichment. I like looking into the different diets and the different toys. I like see my animals happy.

Why do you think zoos are important?
Wow, that thought has really changed in the 20 years since I’ve been here. Then I started they were almost just an entertainment feature for people to come with their families. Zoos are very popular and they’ve always outsold sporting events and such. Then, through the years it kind of became a way to preserve animals. All these different animals were dieing off because of habitat loss, poaching, etc. So they started these breeding programs for exotics and they thought ‘we’re going to repopulate the world’. Well, that didn’t work because the breeding programs were successful but often the reintroduction programs were not. Animals still had the same problems once they were put back in the wild; poaching, hunting, habitat loss. Now, I would have to say, the zoos’ main mission is to provide an experience where adults and kids can actually see these animals from places they might never travel to. Experience what they look like and sound like; unlike the T.V. which is so sterile. Also we have the conservation and education messages we try to get out.

Some people say that zoos are cruel to animals; what do you say to them?
You can’t control those people. But the USDA, which is a federal organization, only has mandates over mammals; they don’t have anything over birds, they don’t have anything for insects. But their rules for mammals get more evolved every year. No matter what the organization, they have to come to snuff with these rules or they’ll lose their license. If you lose your license you’re going to be shut down. So the USDA is now demanding that zoos have enrichment and enclosures stay a certain size with a certain amount of animals.

Is a license different than accreditation?
Oh, yeah. Every zoo, pet store, anything that has to do with animals has to have a license. Zoos can be accredited.

Do zoos have fundraising for environment groups and other zoos?
We have a zookeeper in Madagascar we support. Basically, we pay his wages because his country can’t afford to.

Alright, since you love animals so much, do you have any pets?
I kind of down sized. Right now I only have my two dogs, two turtles and a lizard.

Do you have a favorite animal at the zoo?
My favorite animal is Nemo the lion. I hadn’t been here too long, maybe a year or so, when he came. I’ve taken care of him all his life. He’s my buddy.

Finally is there anything you want to say to girls in general; about life or growing up?
Stay in school and keeping reading everything you can get your hands on. Also pay attention to the maths and sciences because we really need some great minds to enter those fields. And if any of you out there are interested in politics, we need some great minds there too!

So if any of you girls out there are interested in being a zookeeper at all, just check out you local zoo's site. Most zoos will have programs to get youth involved and learning about what a zookeeper does.
Peace, friends.


Margaret said...

I will definitely show this to my sister. She adores animals but she doesn't want to be a vet. Cool interview.

Dev said...

HOORAY! When I read this, I was SO excited to FINALLY see an article in the blog about animals! This is totally what I want to do with my life and I was excited to see an article about this career. It would be SO COOL if you guys made more articles about animals!

Annie said...

I was sooo excited to see a post about animals. I have wanted to be a
vet for about 7 years now and my second choice was a zoo keeper. I really hope there will be another article about animals!!!

Anonymous said...

I love this article!