Keeper Stories – Tuesday, April 18
My name is Bailey Cheney, and I’m one of the newest people on the primate staff right now. I’m currently working solely in the gorilla section, and I love it. I was previously a full-time primate keeper at the Houston Zoo for three years, and before that I was a primate intern with the same zoo for a few months. In Houston, I worked with a wide variety of primates, and surprisingly, chelonians (turtles and tortoises); however, I spent most of my time in the chimpanzee section. I had always wanted to get more experience working with gorillas, so when my husband was offered a job in Atlanta, I took the opportunity to progress my career and apply for a job here!
Usually when I tell people what I do for a living or when I give Keeper Talks, people ask how they (or someone they know) can get into the zoo field. Well, there is not one correct answer! Pull aside three different zookeepers on any given day, and they will all have completely different backgrounds and stories about how they got into this field. While there is not one set track, there are quite a few ways to get your foot in the door.
The first thing I always tell people is to volunteer or get an internship! Volunteering and interning at a zoo, or your local wildlife refuge, can give you a glimpse into the day-to-day operations of animal care. Many people don’t understand exactly how challenging both physically and emotionally animal care work is. It is a lot of cleaning, diet preparation, and observations. It is all worth it though, because it is extremely rewarding to get to see the distinct personalities of the individual animals housed at the Zoo. Another reason that volunteering and interning is great is because it allows you to build relationships with people already in the field. The zoo world is fairly small, so it really helps to have someone who has your back and can vouch for you!
Another thing that significantly helps get a zookeeper job is to have a college degree! I knew I wanted to work with primates, so I got a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. Quite a few keepers that I know have degrees in Psychology, Biology, and Wildlife Management. There are also “teaching zoos” in California and Florida! Where interning gives you hands-on learning, degrees can give you a lot of academic knowledge about the animals that you want to work with.
The last thing I tell people is don’t give up! For some people, it can take years and a lot of internships and volunteering, while for others it can be an easier transition. This job (and getting into it) is hard, but it is an extremely rewarding experience, and zookeepers are some of the most dedicated people I know.
That’s all I have for now! If you see me around the Zoo, feel free to stop and say hey!
Keeper I, Primates