This Zookeeper Week, we shadowed Margaret, a zookeeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Margaret helps care for Suki the elephant, our two muskoxen Hudson and Charlotte, and three of our five clouded leopards (Rakhan, Jao Ying and Sang Dao). We asked her about her experiences in zookeeping and what working with animals and wildlife means to her.
Q: What is your favorite part of the job?
A: My coworkers! I love all the animals, but the people I interact with all day long make my job awesome. It’s nice to work with like-minded people who care about animals and the environment but are also nerdy like me and fun to be around.
Q: What is your favorite animal at the Zoo?
A: I love clouded leopard Sang Dao. She’s so friendly and sweet and loves to interact with us. And, of course, there is Suki, our elderly Asian elephant. Sang Dao and Suki are my two favorites.
Q: What was your journey to becoming a keeper? What inspired you to become a keeper?
A: Watching “Animal Planet” when I was a kid really inspired me and, specifically, seeing Andy Goldfarb on “The Awesome Pawsome.” Seeing him hand raise cubs on Tiger Island in Australia stuck with me. I’ve always loved cats; they are my favorite type of animal to work with.
I took an animal behavior class in college that shifted my journey toward animal care. After working as an intern in the aquarium at Point Defiance, I was hired as a zoological aide. Then I became a staff biologist, first in Kids’ Zone and then in the Asian Forest Sanctuary/Elephant Barn. Finally, I had the opportunity to work in the Elephant Barn full-time, and that’s where I am today.
Q: What does your day typically look like?
A: We start work at 6:30 am and end around 5 pm. Our team generally divides animal care responsibilities, with one team member caring for clouded leopards, two going down to muskoxen, and two taking care of Suki — if she’s awake.
I joke that Suki is the boss of all of us because when she wakes up, we’re there. We feed Suki, dispense her medication, and then give her a pedicure: soaking and cleaning her feet and trimming her toenails and cuticles. Suki also voluntarily participates in daily morning exercises, which help her stay strong and alert. After Suki moves outside, we clean and freshen up her barn. Mid-day, we often have time for chores or special projects.
At the end of the day, we give the animals any medications they need, along with their dinners, and ensure they’re comfortable and secure. We also update the computer records for each individual animal.
Q: What is something people wouldn’t expect about your job?
A: People often want to become zookeepers because they like interacting with animals more than people. The reality is that the job requires a lot of human interaction. You have to be able to talk to guests all day long and be comfortable talking to large groups. If you’re an introvert, it can be scary, but you get better over time and start to enjoy it. It’s not just hanging out with animals; it’s also about working well with others.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a zookeeper?
A: I wish I had gotten a part-time job here at the Zoo when I was in college. People who do that are one step ahead. The sooner you can start caring for animals, the better. Be willing to do something that may not seem as exciting to you so you can work toward what you want to do. Working in a few different animal areas with a multitude of species over time will help you become a well-rounded keeper.
If you’d like to meet Margaret, catch her during an Elephant Keeper Chat.