A Day in the Life of …
For these zookeepers, the animals are more than just a job – they’re family.
By Amy Newman
“Hey, guys!” Jim Rutkowski calls out to Korol and Kunali. The brothers are lumbering toward us, drawn by the sound of his approaching cart. “Come on, buddy!” His tone is a playful sing-song, a parent talking to a toddler.
These aren’t toddlers, though. They’re not even boys – not human ones, anyway. Korol and Kunali are Amur Tigers, and Rutkowski has cared for them since they arrived at the Alaska Zoo more than a decade ago. And while Rutkowski obviously isn’t their parent, he talks to and about them the way parents do of their human offspring.
“Hello, Mr. Handsome, how are you?” he says while he’s feeding them. “Good boy!”
Denali and Nikolai, two male members of the zoo’s gray wolf pack, howl and run alongside their enclosure as Zookeeper Tim Lescher rumbles along the service road. He stops the cart and walks over, greeting them by name and petting their flanks through the chain link fence.
“Hi, Luck!” he calls out to Lucky, the pack’s third male, who’s hanging further back from the fence. “You want to come down?”
Lescher says the keepers try not to have favorites but admits he’s partial to the wolves.
“These animals take it to a whole other level because of the reciprocity,” he says. “They actually appreciate what you’re doing, and some of the animals you don’t get that feedback from.”
The river otters – two boys, one girl – are even more excited as zookeeper Beth Foglesong arrives and opens the back of their enclosure, tumbling over each other as she directs them to their cages for their afternoon feeding.
“That’s Fred and George,” she says, pointing to the boys, who eat together in the same cage, though from different bowls. When I ask if they’re named after the red-headed Weasley twins from the Harry Potter series, she smiles. “Yes, because otters are weasels.”
For these zookeepers, taking care of the zoo’s inhabitants is more than just a job.
“It becomes your family,” Foglesong says of the animals. “We probably spend as much time here with these animals as we do at home.”
So, what’s it like caring for these friendly, furry, ferocious family members? I spent time with the zookeepers to find out.
The bare necessities
“I usually just say we’re the fancy maids and butlers,” Foglesong says of the explanation she routinely gives people who ask her what a zookeeper does. “A lot of people look at the basics – feed, clean, and water – because that’s what the animals need and require. But we’re way more than that.”
No day is typical, Lescher says, though “feeding, cleaning, changing the waters and enrichment occupy the most of your time.”
Keepers prep everything, from food to medication to animal enrichment, the day before so it’s ready to go when their shift begins, Foglesong says. Diet prep volunteers make most of the animals’ meals, though she says the keepers sometimes handle meal prep for animals with a more intricate diet.
Large carnivores, like the tigers and all three species of bear, are supposed to be out when the zoo opens, so the keepers handle those exhibits first.
The animals are brought into separate, smaller enclosures for feedings; this lets the keepers monitor how much the animals eat and gives them an opportunity to clean.
The keepers are careful to keep themselves separated from the animals – “I don’t pet all of the animals here, just so you know,” Lescher says with a laugh as he strokes Malala, one of the zoo’s two snow leopards, through her cage as we walk in to feed them – particularly the large predators. Once they enter an exhibit, they radio their every move to one of the zoo’s curators as a precautionary measure, and double and triple-check the locks on the doors.
“I call it healthy paranoia,” Lescher says of the precautions.
Most of the animals are fed once a day, though some, like the equine animals and the river otters, are fed twice a day. If any animals need medication or supplements, the zookeepers dispense them with the meals. The zookeepers don’t prescribe the medications, Lescher says; that’s done by the zoo’s veterinarian.
Malala takes medication for her eyes, so Lescher hides it inside a ball of ground meat and hand feeds it to her through the cage. Rutkowski, too, hides the tigers’ vitamins inside (much larger) balls of ground meat and passes it through a slot resembling a mail chute, before passing large pieces of steak through the chute.
“We get lots of hunters bringing in game from previous years,” Rutkowski says as he slides steak down Korol’s chute. “Moose, caribou, deer, roasts and steaks, these guys get to eat real good.”
While the animals eat, the zookeepers clean and perform a perimeter check of the enclosures, ensuring there are no breaks or weaknesses in the fence.
“I’m also checking for any foreign matter that people might toss into the exhibit,” Rutkowski says. “I actually found a quarter on (the tigers’) porch. I don’t know why people do certain things, but they do.”
For the animals, all of whom were injured or orphaned, life at the zoo is better than the alternative. They don’t know this, of course, so life in captivity comes with a risk of boredom, especially for animals who would roam areas much larger than their zoo enclosures if they were living in the wild. To minimize boredom, an enrichment coordinator creates activities centered around social, cognitive, habitat, sensory, or food to stimulate the animals and replicate, as much as possible, life in the wild.
“Enrichment is what we do to make the animals’ lives better in captivity,” Foglesong says. “Whether it’s training, toys, spraying scents, hiding food so they have to hunt it down, or different types of things that you add to the habitat to make it better.”
The animals get at least one enrichment activity per day, some as many as four times a day.
“We try, as much as we can, to help them copy what they’d do in the wild,” Rutkowski says as he sweeps up remnants of some moose pelts he’d set out for Korol and Kanali the day before. “You should’ve seen them run off with them; they ran off like they were kids, back tails going (back and forth), and laid down and just started pulling.”
Today, he sprays two enormous boomer balls with cologne. He had to switch from English Leather, which the tigers loved, a few years ago when the price skyrocketed. I tell him the company would probably send him free bottles if he sent a letter explaining what he used it for.
“Yeah, they might,” he says with a laugh as he splashes some on the balls, along with some logs and a flat rock in the enclosure. He lets the tigers back in, and after a few minutes lounging and wrestling, they start batting the balls around.
Lescher performs target training with Nakai, tapping a stick with a tennis ball affixed to the end at various spots on the cage, rewarding him with bits of ground meat each time he touches the target. Once a week the predators get animal carcasses and at Halloween, someone donated a surplus of pumpkins. Malala, he says, went to town on hers; Nakai was less than impressed.
Later that day, he’ll take the wolves on a walk. They go out daily, with trained keepers and staff walking them along the zoo’s service roads. Their bite is so strong, Lescher explains, that they use stainless steel leashes; the wolves could bite through a regular leash with one snap of their jaw if they wanted to.
“Walking them is probably their favorite enrichment,” he says. “As soon as they see that chain, they get excited and start prancing around.”
Ambassadors for the animals
Though it takes up less of their time, educating the public about the zoo and its animals is an essential part of zookeeper life.
“We’re the voice for the animals,” Foglesong says. “If we can’t talk for them, who can?”
Weekly critter chats allow them to choose an animal and offer a 20- to 30-minute presentation, she says, and answer visitor questions. During the zoo’s adventure camps, which are held over winter, spring and summer breaks, the zookeepers have a chance to speak almost daily with the camp participants. By the end of the summer, Foglesong says, many of the kids know as much about the animals as she does.
The educational talks also allow zookeepers to dispel myths or clear up inaccuracies people have about certain animals, Lescher says. One animal he believes gets a lot of unnecessary flak is the wolf.
“The wolf is always vilified,” he says, citing the characterization of the big bad wolf in childhood tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs”. “The thing that often gets glossed over is how social they are and how intelligent they are.”
You’ll often find zookeepers out on the trail, which is uncommon at a lot of zoos, Foglesong says. But it’s another opportunity for them to answer visitor questions or jump in and correct misinformation they may hear while walking around.
Next to caring for the animals, Rutkowski’s favorite thing is talking about them, especially his beloved tigers. Ask him to tell you a little about Amur tigers and he can talk non-stop for 20 minutes, telling you everything there is to know not only about Korol and Kunali, but Amur tigers, their habitat, their decline in the wild and efforts to bring up their numbers.
A zookeeper’s job is a mostly solitary one, with only the animals as constant companions. It’s a physically demanding one – Foglesong once tracked herself walking seven miles a day – and regardless of the weather, they’re out there, making sure the animals are taken care of.
“It’s not an easy job,” Lescher says. “It’s a lot of work, there’s not much downtime, but it’s a lot of fun. At the end of the day, the animals make it worthwhile.”