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Meet Keeper Kelsie

This Zookeeper Week, we shadowed Kelsie, a zookeeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Kelsie works with the animals in the Rocky Shores / Arctic Tundra habitats. We asked her about her experiences in zookeeping and what working with animals and wildlife means to her.

Staff Biologist Kelsie Atz-Riley.

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many different aspects to the job. I really enjoy the team. Our team has a very good dynamic, and we work well together. But the animals and caring for these specific animals can’t be beat. Every day is different, and you have to be on your toes and ready to respond. It’s definitely not monotonous here.

Q: What is your favorite animal at the Zoo?

A: Blizzard was probably my favorite animal. With him gone, it’s been hard. The penguins constantly make me smile and are quite silly. I really like Matia, one of our adult sea lions. She can be sassy and prefers to do her own thing. We have been slowly building our relationship and it’s a lot of fun to work with her. Since becoming a staff biologist, I’ve been able to work more closely with her and assist with her training, which helps create that bond.

Staff Biologist Kelsie Atz-Riley with Saya.

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

A: Out of college I had that typical “oh my gosh, what am I going to do” moment. I started applying for internships and noticed a Rocky Shores internship opportunity. I vividly remembered visiting Point Defiance  Zoo when I was little and loving the sea otters. I didn’t know much about marine mammals then but was ready to learn! I got the internship and then worked as a paid seasonal employee. After about a year, I moved to Montana and then Bellingham. However, I returned to the area and knew I wanted to work at Point Defiance Zoo again. I was hired back, starting part-time at first and then becoming an animal care assistant). A year ago, I got the full-time staff biologist job that I have now, and I love it. I couldn’t be happier!

Staff Biologist Kelsie Atz-Riley with Bjorn.

Q: What does your day typically look like?

A: Today was my food prep day, which I do once a week. I arrived at 6:30 am and started food prep, which takes about an hour. Every day at 7:30 am we have a morning meeting and discuss anything that has changed, for example, if any meds have changed for any animals. Then I start with the morning feedings: sea otters eat five times a day, so we usually feed them first. The alcids (puffins and murres) and penguins are typically next, followed by our pinnipeds (sea lions and harbor seals). Normally we are done with the first round of feedings around 10:30 or 11:00, and we take a short break. Then we start the animals’ second feed of the day.

The Marine Mammal Keeper Chat is at 12:30 every day. Today during the presentation I will be training Boomer, our youngest sea lion. After the keeper chat, I will grab a bite to eat, and then it’s an afternoon of more feeding, training, and record-keeping.

One example of our record-keeping: In our online portal, I will update how many pounds of food each animal eats every day and if there were any physical or behavioral abnormalities. We can then look back and see if the changes are seasonal or if the animal may be acting slightly off. I will also set up our kitchen and pull any food that needs to be thawed for the food prep person who comes in the following day.

Staff Biologist Kelsie Atz-Riley with Boomer.

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

A: I think people often think it’s just feeding and cleaning. But we are involved in a lot of conservation research, and I enjoy helping with that. Also, the number of animals we take care of would surprise many. We have a diverse collection of species that we care for, making every day enjoyable.

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

A: If it’s your passion, get as much animal experience as possible. Make sure your passion is seen by people you volunteer or intern for. For example, when we have interns, it’s clear when someone wants to be here versus people who are coasting. The individuals who are passionate about the animals and excited about caring for them are the ones who get hired.

Staff Biologist Kelsie Atz-Riley with Boomer.

If you’d like to meet Kelsie, catch her during a keeper chat in the Rocky Shores area.