LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- You know you’re going to have a good interview when you show up and the interviewee is gleaming and smiling, and the excitement has nothing to do with you. The excitement comes from playing with exotic animals all day, and it hasn’t worn off after almost a decade. Jill Katka is a zookeeper in the Islands exhibit at the Louisville Zoo, although to the animals, her titles range from mom to nurse. The Islands exhibit houses a variety of animals, the mammals being primarily from Southeast Asia, and most of them are endangered because isolated animals evolved separately and, with the destruction of their natural habitats, they cannot survive elsewhere. Katka chose to work in this area because of the variety of species and tasks, and it’s clear that this must be the best job in the world because Katka simply glows when she exclaims “There is nowhere else I’d rather be."
Katka and the other zookeepers have forged intimate relationships with the animals in their care. The zookeepers know each animal by name and no two look alike. Some have eyes that are further apart, or tends to act a certain way, all differentiation techniques that we tend to use with humans. Each creature has a personality and each is treated as an individual.
“If I had to pick just one thing to do, it would the training of the orangutans,” says Katka. The orangutan is her favorite animal, but I was more impressed with a giant cat leaping several feet into the air at the sound of her whistle. With one blast, Leela, a 162 lb. Sumatran tiger, lifted off the ground; with another she was rolling over on her back and wiggling her butt like my dog waiting for a belly rub; and yet another blow of the whistle sent Leela onto her back paws with her front two on the fence, assuming the position. “She’s a talker,” laughs Katka as Leela mumbles while tearing into meat treats between ‘tricks.’
Zookeepers have various daily tasks like cleaning stalls, preparing meals, rotating the displays (a monkey habitat in the morning may house tigers in the afternoon), taking blood for health screenings and scientific research, and training. Most of Katka’s day is spent training the animals, which has fostered an evident bond between keeper and creature.
Animals are trained in zoos so keepers can better care for them. For example, a tiger is trained to roll over because if the animal ishesitant to roll onto her side, then there is a problem that needs to be investigated. Some of the animals are trained to sit still on scales so weight can be monitored, or so some light medical procedures, like blood draws or vaccinations, can be done. Kafka explains that in some zoos dangerous animals must be anesthetized in order to take blood, and anesthesia can lead to other complications or death. At the Louisville Zoo they train those animals to allow the zookeeper to take blood while they completely lucid.
Training is also good for the animals because it provides exercise and stimulation. Monkeys are given chances to problem solve, to interact with people, and play. All in all, it makes life a little less mundane because even a siamang gets bored.
There is some controversy on the ethics of zoos. Some organizations, like PETA, are against zoos because they see it as cruelty to animals or disagree with taking the zoo route for conservation, saying that they don’t see how zoos are helping save habitats halfway around the world. Katka, however, sees zoos as one of the best tools against long-term extinction and destruction because they foster compassion.
“Wild areas are diminishing rapidly and if people don’t get to meet the animals, see them face to face, why would they care about them?” she says, “in order to love something, you have to know what it is first.”
Katka says that one of the best things people can do to save Indonesian rainforests, where many Island exhibit animals are from, is to monitor their palm oil purchases. Palm oil is found in many granola bars, cookies, and candies and there is about 92 million acres of used-but-useful soil ready for palm trees, but some companies prefer the pristine earth in the rainforest. To learn which companies safely produce palm oil, visit the site for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in the related links.
While being a zookeeper sounds like a lot of fun (it really is), there are some difficulties, of course. With a slow economy, patrons have dwindled and so have charitable donations. A zookeeper generally makes a ‘living wage,’ but it’s not unheard of for an elephant keeper, for example, to be earning $7.50 an hour, or whatever the minimum wage may be in the area. “You don’t become a zookeeper for the money,” says Katka, “most people are in it because they want to enjoy what they do every day, which is good because you want people who really care to watch out for the animals.”
The Louisville Zoo experienced some furlough days, layoffs, and hiring freezes, as did most other industries. However, working in zoology gives a person very specialized skills so they can only be a zookeeper, really. It is difficult to find jobs in the 200 AZA accredited institutions, and even harder to move up to management because people usually don’t leave their positions. To find a new job, or to move up through the ranks, zookeepers generally have to move out of town or out of state. This may sound a bit dismal, but the tenures are actually a testament to the joy, fulfillment, and pleasure that most zookeepers get out of their jobs.