Zookeepers keep spotlight on animals during National Zookeeper Week
Last week was National Zookeeper Week at the St. Louis Zoo – but somebody forgot to tell the zookeepers.
While the three zookeepers interviewed for this article all admitted to feeling “grateful,” “excited” or something similar for the recognition of their work, they all preferred to talk about the animals under their care.
“It’s great to get to celebrate them” – meaning the animals – “and say what they want to say to the visitors,” said Christy Poelker, an antelope keeper who has been with the zoo for 12 years.
Though others might think of a zookeeper’s job as “cleaning up after the animals or maybe training the animals,” Poelker said that most zookeepers think of their jobs very differently. They are concerned not only with caring for individual animals but also with conserving entire species.
“The whole reason for a zoo is to conserve the species,” Poelker said, adding that 36 percent of the species kept at the Zoo are endangered or threatened.
Because conservation depends heavily on public support, Poelker said that zookeepers work hard to help visitors connect with the animals they see. It helps that many of them have gone out and worked with the animals in their natural habitats while doing field research.
Poelker, for example, has been to Kenya to conduct population studies and other research on zebras.
“Visitors really connect more if they can talk to someone who has been there and seen it with their own eyes,” she said.
With that in mind, the Zoo offered additional keeper chats – during which visitors can ask the zookeepers questions – throughout last week.
Seeing the animals and then listening to the keepers, Poelker said, “really connects you, and then you want to see [the animals] preserved.”
This tendency to focus on the animals has been with the zookeepers for almost their entire lives. Some, like carnivore keeper Erin Tully, grew up with pets, while others, like Poelker, did not. But both, as well as carnivore keeper Carrie Felscher, were deeply interested in animals from a young age.
“I wanted to be a zookeeper since I was about 3 years old,” Tully said. “It was always part of my upbringing.”
And now, as adults, their enthusiasm hasn’t waned.
“We devote our lives completely to these animals,” Tully said. “Even when we’re on our weekends, we’re always trying to get updates.”