**You can find part-one in the “Zoo’pendous Summer!” series linked here: https://mildnwild.com/2017/03/15/its-a-zoo-part-one-preparing-for-my-internship/
My first day interning as a zookeeper was in the Small Mammal department. This building housed a variety of critters from small primates, to exotic squirrels, two kinkajous, fruit bats, and even familiar critters like mice and a guinea pig; plus much more. The zookeeper I would be working with was Mitch. My first interaction with Mitch consisted of him pulling up in a golf cart smoking a cigarette and wearing dark sunglasses. Not the best first impression but I was willing to give him a chance. He barely grunted a hello, and once we zoomed away from the gift shop he grumbled “I’m really hungover.” I laughed, maybe a little uncomfortably but I have to admit, he grew on me over the next two months.
The Small Mammal building was essentially two long hallways on each side of the building with the public viewing in the middle. Our sides consisted of a line of wooden doors with padlocks. Each door lead to a small enclosure that house the various mammals. Directly opposite of each door, was the glass that the public could view the animals through. The public side of the building was air conditioned, however ours was not. This was due to the need for a natural environment for the small animals that were housed in the building.
I was fortunate enough to work with two other interns during my time in the Small Mammal department. Angelique was the one to show me most of the ropes and pretty much immediately took me under her wing. She was a nineteen-year-old, petite Hispanic girl who was very perky and sweet. Ashley usually came in the afternoons, she was one tough chick, but she warmed up to me eventually. Both of them had been working at the zoo as interns for much longer then I had so I learned a lot from them.
The first task of every day was to do some touch-up cleaning in each enclosure, take the food and water bowls out to wash them, and then wash the glass on the inside and outside of each enclosure. Touch-up cleaning consisted of squeezing in the small door and maneuvering around various jungle-gym type structures (these were monkey’s after all) with a bucket, paper towels, and animal-friendly glass cleaner. All the while, trying to not smack your head on a tree, or upset the monkey’s, and maybe keep some dignity while getting gawked at by zoo guests. Once we were done picking up piles of feces, dead cockroaches, and old food (zookeeping is not a job for the faint-hearted), we took the food and water bowls out of the enclosures and brought them to the sink to wash. Mitch prepared all the diets, which consisted of various fruits and monkey biscuits, which was put in the proper bowls and then we would redistribute the bowls to each enclosure. This was done every morning, along with hosing down the bat enclosure. Cleaning the bat cave (literally) was an interesting task that involved dragging a garden hose into a pitch-black enclosure. The hose often became kinked, killing the water pressure. The bats thankfully would shy away from the light of the door, which we often had to keep cracked open in order to run the hose through. This was generally a two person job that Angelique and I would complete in the morning, as Ashley didn’t come in until the afternoon. We definitely had our share of laughs when a guest would come by and press the button on the outside of the glass that illuminated the enclosure, allowing the public to view the bats. This generally caused the small bats to swarm frantically around our heads for a few moments, and the look of horror on a guests face when they realized what was happening was always funny.
The routine of cleaning and feeding took up most of the morning, however I was fortunate enough to see another department most days during my time in Small Mammals. Mitch was also on the hand-raising staff. This meant that he was one of the few zookeepers that bottle-fed the baby animals in the nursery. I saw a lot of different babies pass through the nursery during my time at the zoo. The most memorable would be the jackals, the young warthogs (Lion King pun intended), a baby wallaby, a badger, and two baby jaguars born during my last week. It was incredible to see how fast they grew, and the dedication of all the keepers that worked so tirelessly to stick to a very precise, round-the-clock feeding schedule.
Lunch was generally eaten around noon at a picnic table in the service area of the zoo. The service area consisted of multiple feed rooms, the veterinary clinic, a kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and housing for some of the staff. In Small Mammals, the day generally slowed down after lunch. Usually there was more cleaning and then the animals were fed again around four about an hour before I would leave. The Small Mammal building was very laid back and there was always a lot of laughter.
There were many memorable stories from the Small Mammal building. One day, I was cleaning one of tamarin enclosures (a small monkey) when this little guy just came right up and tried to grab my phone! He actually put it up to his ear, which I assume he saw guests do through the glass of his enclosure. I then tried to grab my phone back from him and he ended up slapping me across the face! I had a small cut from his tiny nails on my nose, but it wasn’t too bad. I definitely had a good laugh that I was slapped by a monkey. Another daily occurrence that always made me laugh was trying to clean out the exotic squirrel enclosure. These guys liked to jump out as soon as the door opened, but if you blew raspberries at them, they ran. I never felt more ridiculous slowly opening a door and loudly blowing raspberries at a squirrel. My favorite animals in the building were two squirrel monkeys. One was named Ms. Tiny and she loved to take grapes out of your hand.
There were a few animals housed outside the building, two blue macaws sat outback and a cage full of about twenty squirrel monkeys were housed in the front. The blue macaws were put out onto a perch in the ponds area every day. Mitch would have the two birds step onto a long wooden pole, which we would then walk over to the ponds and then gently perch them for a few hours before they came back to their home. One day, I tripped in the back in the mud and ended up rolling down a small hill in front of Mitch, Ashley, and Angelique. We had a great laugh about that one! The squirrel monkeys out front required daily care as well which included feeding and raking their enclosure. The monkeys would often jump on our backs when we were cleaning, which was always fun.
My time in the Small Mammal building was full of rewarding experiences. It was nice to have a more laid back day due to the very physically demanding days I had in the other departments. It was also nice to be inside when it was over one-hundred degrees outside. I will always fondly look back on the days when I monkey’d around in the Small Mammal building!
**Please stay tuned for the next post in my “Zoo’pendous Summer” series to read about the three other departments I worked in during my internship.
For tips on how to find animal related internships and volunteer work yourself, please check out my how-to article provided in the link below.
In the Spring of 2016, suddenly I was stuck at a crossroads in my life. I was 23 years old and feeling lost. I went to school, got my associates degree in veterinary technology, and was working in the field I had always dreamed of. However, something was missing. The veterinarian I was working for was difficult, and I was the only tech in his small practice so there was no one to learn from. I was constantly being yelled at for rookie mistakes, and was often lost under the pressure of the fast past clinic. I had attempted the VTNE, the veterinary technician national exam, and failed. I kept telling myself that lots of people fail certification tests the first time, no big deal. However, the months went by and I kept putting off studying and just lost motivation to try it again. That’s when I started thinking about my past and realized that I had always wanted to work with exotic animals and wildlife. The vet tech program was always meant to be a stepping stone in a plan to reach that much bigger goal. That’s when I decided to quit my job, go back to school, and search for zoo keeping internships I could do for the summer.
After being accepted into the University of New England animal behavior program, I started looking for zoo internships across the country. I decided that I wanted to spend two months out west in Arizona because my aunt and uncle agreed to let me live with them for the summer if I found an internship close to them. I also liked the idea of spending time with family that I didn’t get to see as often, including my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother. I started googling zoos near their town, and Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari Park happened to pop up. After exploring the website, I was excited to see how many animals Wildlife World Zoo (WWZ) had at their facility, and so many different species! It is the largest collection of exotic species in Arizona. This zoo has even more animals than the Phoenix Zoo, and more impressively it was privately owned by one man. I applied almost immediately. Although I continued to apply to other internships, I had my heart set on Wildlife World Zoo.
Shortly after sending in my application, I received a call from Jamie the volunteer coordinator (and assistant curator, and senior zookeeper; this woman was seriously busy.) It was the call I was hoping for: I was accepted as an intern! I learned WWZ was very relaxed when it came to their internships. There was no uniform, I, for the most part, could pick my own schedule, and choose the departments I was interested in as long as there was space. I learned that really the only difference between an intern and a volunteer at WWZ was that interns had a required amount of hours and received a certificate stating you had completed all the hours at the end. The volunteers and interns had pretty much the same job, but it was probably the most hands on work than any other zoo I had looked into which is what really appealed to me about it.
About a month of preparation went into packing and planning for my trip. Finally, the last week in April had arrived. My family always plans a yearly visit to Arizona to see our extended family and we decided that we would all fly down together, and I would just stay for my internship. I gave myself a few days to get settled, and set up a meeting with Jamie the week before I started. My family decided to check out the zoo on the day of my meeting so we could all get a feel of where I would be working for the next few months, and of course check out all the animals.
Jamie came and picked me up at the gift shop in a golf cart, a common mode of transportation at large zoos. We made our way back to her office and sat down and discussed the departments and days I would be working. Although she didn’t have room in birds and primates, which was one of the departments on my list, she did have room in small mammals and hoofstock, my top two choices! She also added me in the ponds and carnivores department, another area I was thrilled to work in. I would work Friday through Monday 9-5. After our brief meeting, my family and I explored the zoo. Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari park was so big we couldn’t even get through it all in one day. I left feeling excited for the next two months and couldn’t wait to see what this internship brought me.
The next few days came and went and it was finally time for my first day. It was my father, mother, and sister’s last day before flying home so I was happy they got to send me off on this new adventure. My first day I would be in the small mammal building. This building housed bats, small primates, rodents, and much more. It felt like the first day of school again. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. My mother eagerly awaited to take my picture by my shiny new rental car. I suited up in the appropriate khaki shorts, tee shirt, and sunscreen. I packed a hearty lunch and giant water jug to get me through the day. I laced up my sturdy work boots and posed by the car for a photo. Then I was off for my first day…
**Read part two in this series, linked below:
Don’t forget check out Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari park on their website linked below!
For tips on how to find animal related internships and volunteer work yourself, please check out my how-to article provided in the link below.
I’m often asked about my many unique experiences I have had with animals over the years. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lots of animal interactions from a young age. Such as growing up visiting my grandfather’s farm, to volunteering at animal shelters, interning at veterinary hospitals, volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation for birds, and of course my two-month internship at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari Park in the summer of 2016 (please check out my series of posts detailing that internship, a link is provided below.) If I had a nickel for every time someone exclaimed “ugh I am so jealous of all the cool animals you have gotten to interact with.” I would have enough money to buy my own giraffe (which I would not recommend, giraffes are smelly!) However, most people don’t realize that you don’t need to have an animal related education or career to have the experiences I have had. In fact, there are many ways that you could start volunteering, interning, or even find a job in animal related career today! I have compiled a list of helpful hints, tips, and ideas below. Check ‘em out!
The field of working with animals is vast. There are so many different options and a wide variety of opportunities. Ask yourself, what interests me? Is it dogs, cats, and bunnies? Is it veterinary medicine? Is it farm animals? Wildlife? Zoology? Knowing what you are interested in can narrow down your search.
Helpful tip: Make a list of your top three interests to narrow down your search.
The best way to find a job is to look of course! Almost all the internships I applied to were found online. You can easily type in something like “wildlife centers near me” on google and see what pops up.
Ask yourself some questions, such as:
These are all questions that can easily be answered by searching on an organization’s webpage.
Helpful tip: Most volunteer and internship information will be located under the “job” or “employment” tab on an organization’s webpage. If you can’t find it, don’t assume there isn’t anything available. Go to the “contact us” page and send an email, it never hurts to ask.
As said above, always ask if you can’t find an answer. The zoo I interned at didn’t even have internship information on their website, but I saw they had information for volunteering. If I had never emailed the volunteer coordinator and asked about internships, I would never have known! Always be assertive and ask questions, every application process is different.
Helpful tip: Offer yourself to a place of interest! Even if they don’t usually take volunteers, taking initiative and offering to help for free is appealing to those in charge. Put yourself out there and it’s almost always worth it.
You might have a friend or family member that has had a cool experience working with animals. Ask them about it! The animal field is all about connections, and your friend might be able to recommend you to someone in charge or even just give you advice on how to get started.
All your communications and behavior should always remain professional. Even if you decide against a particular place you were interested in, let them know. Don’t just stop emailing or answering their phone calls because you decided on a different place. You never know what the future holds and keeping contacts in related fields you are interested in is always a good thing. If you do decide to volunteer or intern at a particular place, remember just because you might not be getting paid, doesn’t mean you aren’t working. I take my volunteer work and internships very seriously. Always listen to the staff you are working with. Animals can be unpredictable and even dangerous and the staff members are very knowledgeable and the rules they are telling you are there for your safety and the safety of the animals.
Generally, volunteering or interning is the bottom of the workforce food chain, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beneficial. Not only do you gain valuable work experience, but you get to show those in charge what you’ve got. Say you had your heart set on an internship but there are only volunteer positions available. Take it! You might be able to work up to an internship once a position is available. Same goes for taking an internship when you were really looking for a job. Do you know how many people get hired from internships? A lot! Even if it isn’t exactly the work you pictured, you are still getting your foot in the door and sometimes that is half the battle.
Working with animals is such a valuable experience and I hope this article was informative and helps you take the next step towards your dream!
Please check out my series of posts titled, A Zoo’pendous Summer! to read more about my zookeeping internship. A link is provided below.