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My road to a career with animals

Happy Tuesday! My name is Kaya, Primate Keeper II here at Zoo Atlanta. I can primarily be found working with the gorillas, but I also spend time with the orangutans and golden lion tamarins. I started here at Zoo Atlanta as an Animal Ambassadors Intern in summer 2011. I have worn many hats since then (literally, as I’m sure many of you have seen the animal presentations at the Zoo), but one thing has never changed: my love for animals of all shapes and sizes.

Many people ask zoo professionals how they got into the field, and I can guarantee you, everyone’s story is different. In fact, I spoke to a coworker recently who started out pursuing a career in dentistry before making a dramatic U-turn and entering the animal field. Now that’s a cool story! I have always had an interest in animal training, starting with visits to other zoological parks and aquariums when I was younger. I was one of the kids drooling over animal trainers, convinced that it would be me one day. I attended a summer camp dedicated to young animal lovers, and it was suggested to me to pursue a degree in Psychology if I wanted to work with animal training, and Biology if I wanted to become a veterinarian. I have a rocky history when it comes to seeing blood in real life, so needless to say I chose not to become a vet and to instead pursue a degree in Psychology. My true passion has always been training animals, anyway.

After completing college, I applied for a few internships and accepted the Animal Ambassadors Internship here at Zoo Atlanta. I learned so much about working closely and safely with animals and also spent a lot of time with Zoo guests, helping them realize their impact on this planet and the animals in it! After my internship, I was offered an internship in the primate area, which led to a seasonal position, then another seasonal position, then finally a full-time position back in the Animal Ambassadors Team. Perseverance and patience should be on every animal care professional’s résumé! After a two-year stint at another zoo, I returned home to Atlanta and accepted a position back in the primate area. They call people like me “boomerangs!”

Since I’ve been back at Zoo Atlanta, the primates we work with have truly stolen my heart … again. We observe so much personality and mystery on a daily basis. Just like what the Animal Ambassadors Team does with the parrots, snakes, hedgehogs and more, primate keepers learn to use their observational skills and animal knowledge to monitor the animals and provide the best care possible every day. With gorillas, for example, monitoring social groups is equally as important as individual behavior, so in addition to cleaning and making sure the animals are living their best lives through training and enrichment, we are keeping an eye on each animal and group behavior, which should mimic their wild counterparts.

After all this time, one thing has never changed: Every day is different in the zoo field. Fortunately, every team member brings his or her own set of skills and interests, no matter what our backgrounds are. Our collective skillsets, in addition to a lot of on-the-job training and professional development, help us provide the animals at the Zoo the best care possible. We also ask guests to take advantage of the educational opportunities we offer in the form of daily Keeper Talks, presentations and activities that remind us of the importance of the animals’ wild counterparts and the need to understand their plight in the wild. For example, did you buy Valentine’s Day treats made with sustainably sourced palm oil? The unsustainable harvesting of palm oil from orangutan habitats has affected the wild population dramatically. If you are still taking advantage of the after-holiday sales, check to see if your product is made with sustainable palm oil. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but every bit helps.
Thanks for listening to me blabber about myself and the animals. I suppose if you made your way to this Keeper Stories blog, you asked for it! Next time you are at the Zoo, ask any Zoo team member (not only the keepers) what their story is. You may be completely surprised. Happy belated heart day, and I hope to see you all around the Zoo soon!
Kaya Forstall
Keeper II, Primates

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl