So earlier this year I met this amazing guy called Rick Schwartz on Facebook, who is a Zookeeper and Ambassador for the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. After enthusiastically watching his TV appearances and loving the behind the scene photos, I started wondering how different life might be working at a big zoo like the San Diego Zoo compared to Reptilia. So I asked Rick a few questions and here's the result.
Rick with a double yellow headed amazon called Rio (photo credit: San Diego Zoo global staff)
What type of education did you get/ what would you recommend for someone interested in this field?
Many years ago I went thought Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management program. And then followed that up with a basic degree. Moorpark's program is a good one, but not the only way to get into a career of animal care and conservation. In fact most jobs now require a minimum of a bachelors degree in a field of study that is relatable to animal are such as biology, ecology, zoology and even behavioral sciences as well.
Though the book work & the education are important, just as important is hands on experience. Working with animals is a science, but it is also a learnt art in some ways. Reading an animal and understanding the subtleties of animal behavior come with experience. A great way to gain experience is to volunteer at a local shelter, horse boarding ranch, vet clinic or even a wildlife rehabilitation center. Expect to start with the dirty work of picking up poop and cleaning up after the animals. That is after all a big part of animal care, keeping their environment clean. Last thing I recommend, ask a lot of questions. Especially when volunteering, its a great way to learn more.
Photo of the Cougar exhibit at the San Diego Zoo (photo credit: Rick Schwartz)
Wise words Rick. Cool to see that the things I've been doing such as volunteering at Canyon hill Animal Hospital and then working at Reptilia are good steps towards potentially working at a much larger zoo! He's not joking around though guys when he says to expect some dirty work. If there's one thing all animals seem to be too good at it's going to the bathroom! (Some animals go a lot and they have the worst timing - grin)
Rick with Cheetah ambassador Shiley and his amazing team on Good Morning America with Gio Benitz and Cecily Tynan (Photo Credit: San Diego Zoo global staff)
What does your average day consist of?
The average day for a zookeeper is usually very busy. Keeper work is physical labor that also requires good communication with other keepers, supervisors, vet staff and of course zoo guests.
First part of the morning is checking on all of the animals, then usually a quick meeting with fellow keepers to discuss the plan for the day. From there it is cleaning and feeding followed by record keeping. Some zoos use computers for daily records and others use a daily diary of hand written records. These records are shared with other keepers and vet staff, so written communication skills, computer skills and good hand writing are important. From there we usually do keeper talks for the guests of the zoo and some zoo's have formal presentations that the keepers do at scheduled times. There are also occasions where we have summer school kids visiting for special programs or we host local news media on grounds and so on. I guess you might say the average day is anything but average given all the different things that happen at the zoo!
Rick with a baby Koala Bear (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo global staff)
On average we work 8 hours a day, but sometimes there are days we do overtime if there is a special event or if the animals need our care beyond the needs of an average day. And I think the biggest thing that a lot of people don't realize, we work weekends and holidays. The animals don't care what day it is, who's birthday it might be or what holiday we are celebrating. They still need fresh water, food and a clean home everyday. Zoo keepers tend to have non-traditional days off like a Monday & Tuesday, or Wednesday & Thursday. And you usually have different days off than your coworkers to make sure there are always keepers at the zoo to take care of the animals.
Being a zoo keeper isn't just a job. its a way of life.
A Meerkat relaxing at the San Diego Zoo - while the keepers may be constantly on their feet this guy's taking it easy
(Photo Credit: Rick Schwartz)
Sounds remarkably similar to the work we do at Reptilia! Would love to hear more about Rick's experiences as an ambassador though. As I'm sure you've noticed from some of the photos he often makes appearances with the animal ambassador teaching the public about these amazing animals. Uh oh Rick - sounds like I've got more questions for you!! Grin.
What is the best part and the hardest part about your job?
I'd have to say the best part of the job is having the opportunity to take care of some of the most amazing animals on the planet. And with that, we become deeply connected with these animals, and their species. Usually we spend more time with these animals than we do our human family. And thus, the animals become like a family to us. In a close second to that being the best thing about the job, is the opportunities we have as keepers to inspire and educate people about animals, environments & conservation.
Rick with a Desert Tortoise filming for the San Diego Zoo Kid's Channel
That said, it should come as no surprise that the hardest part of the job is out living the animals you take care of. Many species live as long as humans, but many others naturally have a shorter life span. We are blessed to have the deep connections that we have with the animals we care for, but it is never easy having to say good-bye.
Photo Credit:San Diego Zoo global staff
Thanks for the great info Rick and keep up the amazing work you do at the San Diego Zoo!!