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National Zoo Keepers Week 2019

The Not So Secret Privileges of Being a Zoo Keeper

An adult Lesser Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea minor) at the Bronx Zoo’s World of Birds. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

By Aniko Totha
July 26, 2019

The zookeeping profession, like other professions, is filled with long, hard days and plenty of sacrifices and hardships. But what we have that other professions may lack are daily joys given to us by the wildlife we have the absolute privilege of working with.

Zookeepers have gone to great lengths to do what they do. Many of us were born with a passion for wild animals and the conservation of wildlife. We’ve dedicated our lives and studies to those that are feathered, furred, scaled, and smooth-skinned. In return, we are given secret experiences only a select few have the opportunity to enjoy.

“I’m thankful that while I get to experience special moments with the birds in our collection, I am also contributing to the conservation of these wild species and our planet.”

Currently, I work in the Bronx Zoo’s World of Birds and its nursery. I distinctly remember my early days at the zoo when I entered the exhibits for the first time. My favorite observation was to see the birds’ reactions to me entering their exhibits — and how that changed over time. Would they be inquisitive of me or see me as just their feeder?

“Leave the food in the corner, Keeper — there, on that rock.”

Are they afraid of me? Are they feeling territorial? Trust me. Plenty of them are, as they biologically should.

Hooded Merganser ducklings (Lophodytes cucullatus) wait while their pool is being cleaned. Credit: Aniko Totha

A large part of a keeper’s job is to ensure that the animals in their care are healthy, comfortable, well cared for, stimulated, and enriched. Day in and day out, we service animal exhibits, observe our animals, clean, feed, medicate, and give any extra necessary TLC.

I can’t help but laugh and smile when I think back at a few of my most cherished moments in the too-hot or freezing New York City weather; the sometimes back-breaking work; and the heartache of losing an animal you feel connected to.

Allow me to share some of those experiences.

Moment 1:

When servicing an outdoor area where we had a few juvenile Birds-of-Paradise growing strong, bold, and vocal, I heard one of our young males begin to try and vocalize like a breeding adult male. In this case, his vocalization fell short — as if he were a teenager and his voice cracked. I couldn’t help but giggle. Once I giggled, that poor male didn’t make a peep for what felt like hours! Don’t worry, he has since grown into a big, strong and beautiful male bird of paradise.

Moment 2:

We recently successfully raised an Andean Cock of the Rock chick in our nursery. Raising these chicks, hatched with eyes closed and no feathers, is not easy. They need to be fed on the hour all day long! It’s no easy feat, but when you watch them grow into a blossoming fledgling you can’t help but think it was all worth it. The in-between moments are also unforgettable, as when a chick that seems restless falls fast asleep when you place your hand over its back.

“I hope that sharing these magical stories might inspire you to care a little more for the wild creatures that surround us.”

Moment 3:

This spring we also hand-reared a dozen Merganser ducklings that soon will be heading out to our Northern Ponds exhibit. In the meantime, they are growing up in our nursery with plenty of greens to dabble and pools to swim in. One of the most satisfying sounds when tending to tasks in the nursery is hearing the pitter patter of the ducklings’ feet on the soft matting and their vigorous splashing in the water with their clutchmates.

Adult Cock of the Rock (Rupicola peruvianus) at the Bronx Zoo’s World of Birds. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

I am grateful for these moments that I will cherish till the end of time. But I’m also thankful that while I get to experience these special moments, I am also contributing to the conservation of these wild species and our planet. And I hope that sharing these magical stories with all of you might inspire you to care a little more for the wild creatures that surround us and do a little more for our shared home.

Aniko Totha is a Senior Keeper with the Bronx Zoo’s Department of Ornithology and a member of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK).



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