Protecting animals for future generations

National Zookeepers Week: July 13-19, 2014

By definition, a zoo is a garden or park where wild animals are kept for exhibition; a collection of living animals usually for public display. And a zookeeper: one who maintains or cares for the animals in a zoo. Without a zoo there would be no zookeeper and without a zookeeper there would be no zoo.

Every year, the third week of July is designated National Zookeeper Week; the perfect time to ask the question: What does a zookeeper do? 

At Niabi Zoo, Head Zookeeper Mandy Turnbull says there is no such thing as a typical day. The zoo, located in Coal Valley, is situated on 40 acres and is home to more than 330 animals representing more than 140 species from around the world.

Turnbull says her day starts by meeting with other zookeepers to share any animal and exhibit news from the previous day. “We then go to our assigned animal areas to do health checks and head counts, exhibit checks and any opening duties,” she said. “All of us are responsible for the daily feeding, watering, enriching, training, medical assessment and exhibit cleaning for a wide variety of animals.

“We [also] perform husbandry training which means that we train behaviors that ultimately reduce the stress of medical exams or transport,” she explained. “For example, if we can train a lion to present its paw, then if we suspect that it has an injury we can ask for that ‘paw present’ rather than having to perform a medical sedation. We can also train an animal to enter into a carrier on its own which eliminates the need to capture it.”

Environmental Enrichment is another major part of a zookeeper’s duties. “We care for animals in a captive environment, and we want those animals to have opportunities to make choices about that environment,” said Turnbull. “We want them to exhibit natural behaviors whenever possible. 

“To that end we will give them objects to play with, different scents to follow or different perches to sit on,” she explained. “We [might also] change the mode by which they receive their diet so they are engaged in thinking about their food.” 

A zookeeper for 11 years, Turnbull says her favorite part of the job is watching the animals being playful. “I also love talking to people and helping them understand how cool animals are. A lot of visitors want to learn about the animals or have questions about why I’m doing something in an exhibit.” 

To become a zookeeper, Turnbull graduated from college with a degree in biology and interned at Niabi Zoo. “A lot of the preparation for being a zookeeper is research about the different animals and on-the-job training. You can know all about the biology of a specific species of animal, but each facility has its own protocols for working around the animals and each animal has behaviors that may be unique.” 

Although trained to be able to take care of all the animals at the zoo, Turnbull says she mostly works with the elephants, large carnivores and reptiles.

One thing that surprises Turnbull is when she hears someone say zoo animals belong in the wild. “There is not much ‘wild’ left in the world, and those animals in the wild are being killed or taken for the pet trade at an alarming rate. The ivory trade, palm oil production, bushmeat trade, exotic pet trade and traditional medicines have absolutely decimated wild animal populations that were already declining due to habitat destruction. 

“One of the most important jobs that a zoological institution can do is to foster a positive connection between visitors and animals,” she says. “If I can get a visitor excited about an animal, my hope is that they keep that excitement and channel it into an effort to learn more about that species and its plight in the wild. 

“The more visitors are informed, the more they can make positive changes in the world. My part in all of this is to take care of the animals at Niabi Zoo with the highest standards possible and to help the public care about conserving the animals’ wild counterparts,” she adds. “It is a role that I am excited about and proud to have.”

As the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and vanishing habitats has increased, our role as educators and wildlife ambassadors has become essential. During the third week of July each year, celebrate National Zoo Keeper Week; both you and your animals deserve the recognition. 

American Association of Zookeepers


Other Illinois Zoos

Illinois is well represented in the world of zoos, aquariums and animals sanctuaries. Some of the state’s offering:

Brookfield Zoo; 3300 Golf Road, Brookfield; (708) 688-8000; 

Cosley Zoo; 1356 N. Gary Avenue, Wheaton; (630) 665-5534;

Glen Oak Zoo; 2218 North Prospect Street, Peoria; (309) 686-3365; 

Henson Robinson Zoo; 1100 East Lake Drive, Springfield; (217) 585-1821;

Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens; 2001 North Clark Street, Chicago; (312) 742-2000;

Miller Park Zoo; 1020 South Morris Avenue, Bloomington; (309) 434-2250; 

Niabi Zoo; 13010 Niabi Zoo Road, Coal Valley; (309) 799-3482;

Phillips Park Zoo; 1000 Ray Moses Drive, Aurora; (630) 256-3750; 

Scovill Zoo; 71 South Country Club Road, Decatur; (217) 421-7435;