Zookeeper: [zoo-kee-per] a noun …

/ / Zoo General, Zoo News, Zoo Volunteers

The Merriam brothers or Mr. Webster never had the opportunity to spend time with the zookeepers at Dickerson Park Zoo. If they had, the definition of zookeeper would be more accurate.

Fortunately, as part of my training as PR & Marketing Director, Zoo Director Mike Crocker arranged for me to spend three days working with the zookeepers.

Day one I spent with Swing Keeper Sheila Samek. As a swing keeper, Sheila is trained in all areas except venomous snakes. Currently, Sheila is focused on breeding the cheetahs, an endangered species.

Dickerson Park Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and works with AZA and AZA accredited zoos on global wildlife conservation. Education and understanding is essential to a successful breeding program and conservation.

“I spent three days in Florida learning more about breeding cheetahs,” Sheila said. “The more I learn the more I realize there is so much to know.”

Sheila’s mornings start by watching and listening to the cheetahs. “You don’t want the male or female face to face until the male starts to chirp and bark,” she explained.

She listens to see which male is most vocal and if the female is rolling on the ground or demonstrating out of the ordinary behavior.

After working with the cheetahs, we were off to help clean the flamingo exhibit, haul and spread mulch, check on various animals, discuss a new drain and upgrade to the flamingo pool, coordinate care with Dr. Rodney Schnellbacher and prepare evening meals.

Lesson #1: Zookeepers are always on the go.

Day two began with Sarah Dunham working in South America. It was storming and pouring rain, but the animals in her care wanted breakfast. From the macaws to the squirrel monkeys, we distributed carefully calculated and monitored meals. Sarah is incredibly patient and caring (traits I noticed in all the keepers) as she moves from animal to animal with meals and an observant eye.

Lesson #2: Zookeepers are amazingly attentive to the animals in their care, noticing subtle differences in behavior or diet, and they communicate continuously with each other and Dr. Rodney to make sure all the animals are healthy.

The rest of the day was spent at the veterinary hospital. Dickerson Park Zoo’s wildlife rehabilitation program brings many native animals to the hospital for medical care. The goal is to provide the necessary care so the animals may be released. This is often a long process and requires a lot of attention until fully recovered.

Lesson #3: Zookeepers and the veterinary staff have great respect and concern for all the animals. From the tiniest reptile to the largest mammal, conservation and protection are extremely important to these professionals.

Day three was my final day working with the keepers and it was quite an experience. KOLR 10 was doing a live broadcast for the morning show; so I was in my normal attire from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. After changing I had the pleasure of working with Lauren Sweet and Matt Corrie in Africa. Lauren cleaned the pool while I shoveled lion poop (a definite first for me). Then, we joined Matt and worked on giraffe training.

Lesson #4: Zookeepers days are long, demanding, grimy, smelly, interesting, fascinating, challenging and extremely rewarding.

My brief time working alongside just a few of the amazing keepers at Dickerson Park Zoo was an incredible experience. I gained a whole new perspective of what it means to be a zookeeper. My brief experience was not “being a zookeeper for a day.” The keepers have way too much knowledge, expertise and training to think that shoveling a few piles of lion poop and cleaning an exhibit makes me a keeper, even for a day.

What my experience did do was make me even more excited in my new role at Dickerson Park Zoo. This is an amazing place with amazing animals and people. I can’t wait to discover and share their stories.


Senior keeper Sheila Samek, Intern Kellyn Sweeley, vet student at University of Georgia, Dr. Rodney Schnellbacher, Intern Ashley Cowan, pre vet student at Mizzou and Animal Health Technician April Marler take a quick break after discussing care procedures.