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Meet Keeper Heather

This Zookeeper Week, we shadowed Heather, a zookeeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Heather works with the animals in the Asian Forest Sanctuary. We asked her about her experiences in zookeeping and what working with animals and wildlife means to her.

Staff Biologist Heather Burns with Bandar.

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: I really enjoy talking with our guests, especially children, and helping them learn about our animals here at the Zoo.

Q: What is your favorite animal at the Zoo?

A: It often changes based on which animal I’ve recently been working with the most. Right now, I would say my favorite is Dudlee, our Siamang. Dudlee is so full of sass and personality; she knows how to pull my heartstrings.

Staff Biologist Heather Burns with Dudlee.

Q: What was your journey to becoming a keeper? What inspired you to become a keeper?

A: I’ve always loved animals. I got a bachelor’s degree in biology and worked at a veterinary clinic. After working as an intern at Rocky Shores, I was offered a part-time position in the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater area, and after two years, I moved to full-time. I worked there for five fun-filled years. I’m now a staff biologist in the Asian Forest Sanctuary, and I love everything about it. I feel like I was meant to work in this part of the Zoo and care for these fantastic animals.

Q: What does your day typically look like?

A: Every morning starts with a meeting, where our daily roles are assigned. That could mean I’ll be a primary shifter, moving the animals out onto exhibit, or I could be double-checking every tiger pathway or maybe cleaning rooms. Today I was assigned to run the behind-the-scenes operations. From 7:30-9:15, we give animals their breakfast, move them onto exhibit, and generally make sure the animals are comfortable and where they need to be. Our success depends on communication and teamwork. In the middle part of the day, I often do training sessions and any needed cleaning.

The Asian Forest Sanctuary Keeper Chat is at 11 am, and today I will be the one giving the chat, which I do once or twice a week.

At the end of the day, we do everything in reverse from the morning routine and we make sure that the animals are comfortably back in their bedrooms for the evening and are fed, happy and secure.

Staff Biologist Heather Burns and Indah.

Q: What is something people wouldn’t expect about your job?

A: People outside the Zoo world are most surprised by the different things we do to keep our animals mentally and physically stimulated. These enrichments can be cutting browse (leaves, twigs, and vegetation) for our animals, making “blood” popsicles for the Sumatran tigers, or giving a bubble bath to a primate. We put a lot of creativity into giving the animals different kinds of enrichments throughout the day.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a zookeeper?

A: Get as much animal experience as you can. Getting a bachelor’s degree with an animal focus can also be a great help. Start applying for internships or part-time positions — any way to get your foot in the door. Once you get that internship or part-time position, work hard to show your managers that you’re the person they’d want to have as a full-time zookeeper.

Staff Biologist Heather Burns and Indah.

If you’d like to meet Heather, catch her during a Keeper Chat in the Asian Forest Sanctuary area.