IU at the Zoo

Can you imagine raising a hippo? Or teaching gorillas new behaviors? Six IU alums at zoos across the country share what it’s like to care for some of the world’s most endearing species.


Jenna (Poynter) Wingate, BA’09

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Cincinnati
Senior Africa keeper

Jenna Wingate began working as an intern at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2009. She became a full-time employee in 2014. “The turnover rate for zookeepers is very low, so it can be challenging to land a full-time position at a big, well-known zoo,” Wingate says. Here she is pictured with Fiona—the Cincinnati Zoo’s resident celebrity hippo. Courtesy photo.

What are your favorite animals to work with?
JW
: My favorite animals to work with that I currently care for are meerkats, hippos, and giraffes.

Can you describe your typical day at the zoo?
JW
: Each morning, we check on all of the animals we are caring for that day and feed them around 7 a.m. Once everyone is fed, I begin by making sure the hippos are safely secured inside the barn before going out onto their habitat and cleaning it for the day. This involves sweeping up a lot of sand and hay for the hippos and making sure everything is safe for them and our guests before putting them back outside. Our meerkats can dig their own underground tunnels, so after I have confirmed all six of them are inside and well, I can begin adding enrichment to their habitat. When animals are outside and set for the day, we begin cleaning. The job isn’t always super glamorous and actually involves a lot of poop, heavy lifting, scrubbing, and hosing. Because I work with Fiona, a hippo that was born premature and hand raised, I often spend at least an hour of my day working with our public relations and development teams on Facebook Live [events], Cameo [videos], interviews, and tours.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
JW
: If I had to pick one favorite memory it would definitely involve the life-changing experience of helping to raise Fiona—and more specifically, swimming with her. When she was born, she was at least six weeks early and only 29 pounds. Full-term hippo calves weigh between 50–100 pounds. We worked with her 24/7 and went through some really challenging times where we weren’t sure if she would survive. For months, she would follow us around like a little puppy dog. When she was finally big enough and strong enough to go outside in our outdoor hippo pool, we swam with her to make sure she knew how to navigate the deep water and find the shallow areas to rest. For a month, we would go swimming with this little 250-pound hippo every afternoon. It was so much fun.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
JW
: The most challenging part of the job for me is having an animal pass away—and on top of that, having to continue answering questions about them when visitors ask.

What kind of training do you do with the animals?
JW
: We use what is called positive-reinforcement training with the animals in our care. If they choose to participate in a behavior, they get rewarded. If they do not feel like participating, that’s totally fine too. For example, it’s really important to be able to see into a hippo’s mouth and take good care of their teeth and gums, so training them to open their mouth on a cue is really helpful for us. Because [we] don’t speak the same language, we go about training behaviors in a few different ways, but capturing a behavior is often a common way. Hippos are very food motivated, so they will open their mouths and beg quite often. We can add a cue to this and teach them to open their mouth when we would like them to.

Would you say that all the animals you care for recognize and trust you?
JW
: I’m very confident they all recognize me, but depending on the species, some trust [me] more than others. Building a relationship and trust with an animal is very rewarding, but some animals are built to be wary of everything. A Thompson’s gazelle is a small type of antelope from Africa that I work with. They are lovingly known as the “potato chips of the savanna” because they are the snack of many predators. Because of this, they can be very hesitant to trust anything. Over time they learn to trust us more, but they aren’t an animal that would ever come over and want scratches or affection of any sort. Other animals, like hippos, for example, really don’t have a ton to worry about, so they can be much easier to build trust with. Fiona and Bibi will approach me when I call their names or when they want a mouth massage or just some extra attention. Most species fall somewhere in between those levels of trust. Our African painted dogs prefer their pack members over humans, but they trust us enough to do training sessions and will come to us for their rewards.


Caroline Fischer, BS’19

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Palm Desert, Calif.
Africa keeper

Caroline Fischer is an Africa keeper who works specifically with animals of the plains, including zebra, dromedary camels, addax, and bighorn sheep. Courtesy photo.

Can you describe your typical day at the zoo?
CF
: I tend to [the animals’] daily needs, such as raking their yards, feeding them, offering innovative enrichment, and my favorite part: training. I’ve been training our baby dromedary camels for a few weeks now. One of the behaviors I’ve been working on is “head turns.” By a verbal and hand cue, the camels should turn their necks to the side. This helps zookeepers ensure [the camels’] neck muscles are moving properly and no one is feeling any pain. Some other behaviors I am working on are having the camels turn in a circle, as well as getting them to walk to a certain spot on [the] habitat called their “station.”

What is the most challenging part of your job?
CF
: In this climate, the most challenging part of my job is the heat. Coming from the Illinois/Indiana area, I had never experienced desert heat before. In the summer, it can reach 120 degrees and doing labor-intensive work, like raking yards and climbing mountains, is tough.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
CF
: One of my favorite memories thus far was getting to work in the elephant barn at the Indianapolis Zoo. I am an aspiring elephant keeper, and this gave me a chance to really see the manual labor, skills, and knowledge that go into caring for these amazing creatures.

How did your time at IU prepare you for your job?
CF
: The animal behavior major was actually the reason I chose to come to IU. I wanted to study something different than the classic biology or zoology, and I knew having the animal behavior degree would help me stand out among other applicants when applying for jobs. My favorite classes were always with [lecturer] Adam Smith.


Rachel Hale, BS’13

Tampa, Fla.
Senior animal care specialist

Having worked in the zoological industry for nearly a decade, Rachel Hale, an IUPUI grad, has cared for more than 30 species. Courtesy photo.

Can you describe your typical day at the zoo?
RH
: I work with gorillas and chimpanzees. On a daily basis, our team is responsible for cleaning and maintaining their living space and ensuring they are provided a well-rounded diet. For animals that eat 60-plus pounds of food per day each, that means a lot of feeding. We also work with them every day to practice husbandry (or medical) behaviors. We train them to voluntarily participate in their own health care so we can guarantee their needs are met. Some of these sessions include voluntary X-rays, voluntary injections, and voluntary body presentations that enable us to provide a daily checkup on each individual.

What are your favorite animals to work with?
RH
: I never expected to fall in love with gorillas as much as I did. They don’t “need” us, and they know it—their habitats are edible. As I’ve gotten to know and love gorillas, they have humbled me, laughed with me, and taught me more than anyone else how to build relationships, build trust, and have a lot of fun in the process.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
RH: The most challenging aspect of working with intelligent and complex animals is staying ahead of them. They keep us on our toes, so we have to make sure we are always adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unexpected.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
RH
: I taught one of our gorillas a behavior called “innovate.”  For this, he could do anything he wanted to in a session, as long as he did not do the same thing twice. It taught him a new way to critically think. One day, we got extra peaches from the kitchen, so I walked over and gave him one before returning to sort [out] diets. I heard him “happy grumbling” at me, soliciting attention. I walked over to him and he was tapping the peach pit on the floor. When I got over to where he was, he began to “innovate” with the peach pit. He threw it, drummed with it, spun around with it, and laughed the entire time. It’s moments like these, where you can see the impact you can have on the life of another living being. The silverback [gorilla] gifted me the pit at the end of play and I turned it into a necklace—forever securing it as one of my favorite pieces of jewelry and memories.

Is there anything people would be surprised to know about your job?
RH
: When it comes to working as a zookeeper, people are most surprised to know how much work it takes to get here. We all have to earn a bachelor’s degree, typically in the sciences, and do countless hours of unpaid work via volunteering and internships before earning a part-time or seasonal position. Becoming a full-time zookeeper or animal trainer is extremely competitive and comes with a lot of hardships. We work weekends and holidays, forcing many of us to miss family events, and we don’t get paid a large salary to do so. Animal trainers are cut from a different cloth. Zoo-keeping is truly a labor of love.


Lauren Ayres Martinez, BA’09, MS’11

San Diego
Senior wildlife care and behavior specialist

“I love cats and anything cat-like. Some of my favorite species I’ve worked with are lemurs, otters, tigers, ocelots, cougars, and a very stubborn wombat,” Lauren Ayres Martinez tells us. Courtesy photo.

What do you love most about your job?
LAM
: My favorite thing about my job is when we are able to take the animals to visit people outside of the zoo. We take our animal ambassadors to hospitals, nursing homes, and senior centers to bring a bit of joy into the lives of people who are unable to visit the zoo themselves.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
LAM
: Physically, it is challenging. I’m on my feet all day and moving heavy things around like feed bags, hay bales, and even the animals themselves from time to time. However, the most challenging part is definitely the emotional toll it takes on us. We put our hearts and souls into our work and often suffer from compassion fatigue—a condition that many professional caretakers (nurses, veterinarians, etc.) are familiar with. It can lead to burnout or severe depression if not managed.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
LAM
: I think one of my favorite career memories involves working with rescued animals. There is a sense of “gratefulness” in many of the animals that have been rescued from dire situations of neglect and even abuse. Seeing a scared animal turn into a confident, healthy, and happy animal after being rescued is one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment.


Anne Nichols, BS’01

Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield, Ill.
Lead zookeeper for large carnivores

Anne Nichols has worked at the Brookfield Zoo for eight years. Her favorite animals to work with are big cats and bears. Courtesy photo.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
AN
: As with most non-profits, there is never enough time, staffing, and resources available for everything we hope to do in order to advance our excellent animal care and conservation.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career so far?
AN
: Seeing all the babies that have been born throughout my career grow, prosper, and become parents themselves.

How did your time at IU prepare you for your job?
AN: I gained a strong background in the sciences and animal behavior. The pre-veterinary program helped me understand the biological processes of animals and the critical thinking skills needed to problem solve in challenging situations.


Hannah Runge, BA’15

Lincoln Park Zoo
Chicago
Former comparative nutrition intern

Hannah Runge worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo during the 2018–2019 winter months. “If you had the pleasure of living in Chicago that year, you’ll remember that we had near-record cold temperatures that January,” Runge says. “With temperatures dropping 20 below freezing, the zoo operated under a skeleton crew to maintain staff and animal safety.” Courtesy photo.

What were your favorite animals to work with at the Lincoln Park Zoo?
HR
: Marine mammals are my favorite to work with. I was thrilled to work more intimately with Lincoln Park Zoo’s collection of polar bears, as well as grey and harbor seals.

What did a typical day as a nutrition intern look like?
HR
: A typical day began with a staff meeting between the veterinary and nutrition departments—to provide each animal at the zoo with an individualized, holistic-care plan and to discuss any important notes on animal conditions, dietary changes, or veterinary procedures. After, the nutrition center technicians delivered provisions around the zoo, while I prepared and distributed customized dietary additions for some of the animals that needed a little extra TLC.

How different are the animals’ diets in the zoo compared to in the wild?
HR
: Organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums offer caretaking guidelines for species developed by experienced veterinarians, nutritionists, and animal caretakers. The goal is always to craft a well-balanced diet that is consistently consumed, encourages natural feeding behaviors, and is sensible to [provide] in a human-care setting. Diets aren’t precisely replicated to those of wild counterparts, but they do meet the same nutritional goals.

Can you give us an example of a polar bear’s diet?
HR
: For polar bears, it is important to consider what season it is. Spring mating and fall maternal den season, as well as lactation periods will change caloric requirement. In general, a well-balanced diet may consist of a combination of nutritionally complete feed (a “polar bear kibble” of sorts), whole prey items (majority saltwater fish), produce, as well as enrichment food items (honey, peanut butter, spices for scent enrichment, etc.). Although the public tends to have mixed views, live-prey can also be very effective in encouraging natural feeding instincts and providing variety in a human-care setting. Lincoln Park Zoo uses freshwater trout in a behind-the-scenes pool for the polar bears.


If you enjoyed this article, check out IU Under the Sea, which interviews four alums whose work uniforms include a wetsuit. 

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Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.