Now More than Ever, Women Zoo Keepers Are Succeeding and Inspiring

1 April 2024 Off By Bambam

This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Women’s History Month, WCS and Nature are bringing you stories of women in the fields of nature and conservation.

At the Aquatic Bird House feeding and introducing whole fish pieces to the newest Little Penguin chick. This chick is currently being hand raised, and will be introduced to the colony in a few weeks. Photo Credit: Terria Clay ©WCS

Growing up in a small town on Long Island, New York, I always knew I wanted to work with animals. For as long as I can remember, I was that young child bringing home sick or injured wildlife and trying to care for them. I entered college in the pre-med program of Long Island University and planned to go to Ross University Veterinary School until a special guest speaker came to lecture.

Dr. Scott Silver, then the Animal Curator of the Queens Zoo, gave a presentation about his conservation work with jaguars. I was immediately hooked and a conversation with Scott after his lecture connected me with Queens Zoo Animal Department Supervisor Donna-Mae Butcher. She mentioned the zoo offered summer internships for college students and I eagerly pursued and was accepted for a position as a summer intern.

It soon became clear to me that not everyone looked at my work at the zoo with the same reverence that I did. A common misconception seemed to be that zoo keepers chose their line of work because they weren’t smart or didn’t have an education. Or that we just pick up poop. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. I made a decision then to do my part to change the public perception of this career.

At the Bronx Zoo Childrens Zoo with baby Nubian goat “Noah” just a few weeks before he graduated and went to the Queens Zoo Farm to help grow their collection. Photo Credit: Ellen Gaeta/WCS

As if the dismissive attitude toward zoo staff wasn’t bad enough, I next encountered an additional stereotype: that women were not “strong enough” to do this labor-intensive work. I’d had doubts in the beginning that I would be able to lift bales of hay, or heavy bags of animal feed, but the biases I confronted only made me more determined to complete the many physical tasks awaiting me that first summer.

To be sure, I had role models to look to. Senior keeper Dana Vasquez showed me that not only can women complete the job, but they can also be in charge of an entire routine of animal care. By their example, Donna-Mae and Dana demonstrated how a young woman in my position might proceed to take on greater responsibilities and perhaps rise to a management position.

I made a decision to work as an intern at every city zoo run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), gaining as much experience as possible working with a variety of species. My first full-time position was in the Bronx Zoo Herpetology Department. Initially the only woman in the department, I was never once made to feel that my gender was going to be an issue. My male colleagues treated me with respect, and they all took pride in teaching me as much as they could.

At Bronx Zoo Aldabra Tortoise Exhibit: A male Aldabra enjoying a much loved strawberry treat along with some neck scratches. Photo Credit: Melissa Ortiz/WCS

During this time, I was put in charge of taking care of an entire collection of confiscated turtles and tortoises being housed in our quarantine building. It was there that I met another incredible colleague who showed me that a woman could have a pivotal role in assisting in the management of an entire animal hospital. Lisa Eidlin has been an inspiration for me to continue growing in this field. She has pushed me to always strive to learn more and move forward in my career.

I worked part-time in the Herpetology Department for over four years before taking a full-time position in the Bronx Zoo Ornithology Department. There, I became involved in a species management effort for the first time. As Species Survival Plan Coordinator Assistant for the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor), I maintained records of the genetics of all Little Penguins in North America, in a sense keeping track of the family tree, and helped with pair bonds to improve the genetic diversity of the captive population.

Recently, I was promoted to Provisional Senior Wild Animal Keeper of the World of Birds, which includes the area where we hatch and hand raise chicks. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working more closely with Ornithology Senior Wild Animal Keeper Nancy Gonzalez on penguin management.

In my six years working alongside Nancy, I have continually modelled my standards and practices after her example. My goal has always been to be a role model to younger people entering our field, as so many extraordinary women working at WCS’s zoos and aquarium have been for me—providing inspiration and demonstrating just how complex, demanding, and fulfilling a zoo keeper’s job can be.

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