If you live anywhere in the Greater Cincinnati area, there's no doubt that the Cincinnati Zoo is on your radar. Perhaps you spent time there as a child at birthday parties, educational programs, or braved a night amongst the animals during one of their zoo overnights. Maybe the Cincinnati Zoo is your favorite way to celebrate the holiday season with a trip to the Festival of Lights. Or the zoo might just be your go-to local spot for a day of fun. The zoo is a different place to different people in the area, but to Megan O'Keefe, the Cincinnati Zoo is where her childhood dream of having a career working with animals came true.
O'Keefe, a 2003 graduate of Highlands High School, is a Manatee Springs Animal Keeper at the Cincinnati Zoo. She gave us an inside look into the life of a zookeeper. For O'Keefe, her job is two-fold. There is the care and training of the animals, and also interacting and educating the zoo's visitors. “My job description basically entails taking care of the animals, and all aspects surrounding that. It's a little bit different for each department, obviously, since different animals have different needs and different ways to care for them. There's also a public aspect to being a zookeeper. Not only do you take care of the animals, but you're also responsible for educating the public that comes through your building. We also do keeper talks and animal encounters, and things like that,” said O'Keefe.
Manatee Springs is an incredibly unique aspect of the Cincinnati Zoo. It's one of only 9 facilities in the country that are part of a rescue, rehabilitation, and release program for manatees. “A lot of people don't know that,” said O'Keefe. “There's only two facilities outside of Florida that house manatees – it's ourselves and Columbus.” Since manatees are endangered species, the ones found in captivity are part of a rehabilitation and release program. The program provides care for sick, injured, or orphaned manatees. “We get them better, and then send them back down to Florida, where they eventually go back out into the wild. We've had 14 manatees so far at the Cincinnati Zoo. 12 of which have been released successfully, and 2 we currently have,” said O'Keefe.
When the manatees arrive at the Cincinnati Zoo, they have been stabilized after being injured. “We're going to get manatees that have been stabilized after having maybe a boat injury that healed, and now they need somewhere to gain weight or get healthy again longterm,” said O'Keefe. Manatee Springs also takes in manatees that are suffering from cold stress. “Manatees are really susceptible to water temperature. Anything below 65 degrees, and they start getting like a manatee hypothermia,” said O'Keefe.
The Cincinnati Zoo also helps to rehabilitate orphaned manatees. If a manatee is found swimming alone, or is too young to properly live on their own, the zoo will care for them until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. “Usually we don't have information about what happened to the mother – whether they've been abandoned, or if the mother may have passed away from cold stress. We don't really know that. We just get younger manatees that aren't really ready to be on their own yet,” said O'Keefe.
If you're a regular to the Cincinnati Zoo, you are likely to encounter some of the same manatees during your visits. “Most people don't know about the program because the manatees are here for a long period of time. Even if they come back to the zoo, they might see the same manatees. So that's another part of our job, when we do our keeper talks, is to educate the public about this program.” Transporting a manatee to the Cincinnati Zoo is a major process. Because of the time and effort it takes to transport these large animals to the zoo, they only take on longterm cases. The manatees that come to Cincinnati could potentially be at the zoo for a year or longer.
Being a zookeeper is obviously a vastly different experience than the typical office job. While some people may have conference calls and meetings to keep up with each day, O'Keefe is busy making sure that the animals are healthy and happy, and their facilities are properly maintained. It's much more than hanging out with cute animals all day (although, she does get to do that too). There's a lot that goes into the daily care of the animals as well as keeping the zoo an enjoyable place for visitors to experience. Each day on the job is a little different, and it varies depending on which animals the zookeepers are responsible for at the zoo. Along with taking care of the animals, the zookeepers also give talks and interact with the public each day.
For O'Keefe, her first task when starting a workday is to check on the animals. “After you check on the animals, and make sure that everyone is doing well, you check on the filtration system. This is where our department differs greatly from other animal departments. Because we are fully aquatic, it's a lot more technical zookeeping than when you're working with hoofstock, where a main part of your day would be dealing with cleaning. Where a majority of the day in other departments would be feeding, cleaning, and training, here we have to make sure that all the systems are running properly,” said O'Keefe. The Manatee Springs animal keepers perform water quality testing duties, check on the filtration system, and then clean out the pool. “We only give the manatees food that is fresh, obviously, so we remove all the old food that didn't eat,” said O'Keefe. “Then we'll have a cleaning dive.” Manatee Springs has an impressive volunteer program, which is especially helpful for the cleaning dives. Volunteers are at the zoo seven days a week, and they help to clean the tanks. “So most days, I'm up running the dives and telling the volunteers what to do. Somedays I'm actually diving, especially if we have some sort of maintenance that we need to do in the tanks, then the keepers will get in and dive,” said O'Keefe.
Once the tanks are taken care of each day, the zookeepers then focus on animal training. O'Keefe and her co-workers train with the manatees, and also with their department's alligator and crocodile. “Training is really important in zoos. It's better for the animal and it's better for the keeper if the animal is trained, so we'll do training sessions,” said O'Keefe. When they aren't training the animals or maintaining the tanks, the zookeepers can be found putting their culinary skills to work for the manatees. “Lots of our day revolves around food prep for the next day, so we'll get all the animals' food ready for the next day,” said O'Keefe.
Like previously mentioned, O'Keefe's daily workload changes each day. Somedays there are different medical duties that need to be performed with the help of the zoo's veterinarians. “The keepers work really closely with the vet. One reason for that is that if the vet has to do something physically to an animal, it might have to be restrained. The keepers are the ones trained on doing that,” said O'Keefe. On any given day, the zookeepers and veterinarians may need to get in the water to do a physical examination on a manatee. One consistency in the zookeepers' daily duties in their last task of the day. The zookeepers always finish each day by compiling reports to be electronically sent to the curators and veterinarians. “We also send reports at the end of the day on different aspects of the animals' behavior, their diet, medical stuff,” said O'Keefe.
O'Keefe was able to turn her lifelong fascination with animals into a career after a mix of luck, and years of good old fashioned hard work and dedication. “I was studying Biology in school, and working on a farm, and volunteering at the zoo by talking about animals in different exhibits. Then, I did an internship with the Bird House and Manatee Springs. There happened to be a person leaving the department to become a teacher – he's actually an instructor now for the Zoo Academy, where we have high school students come in and help us everyday. So he was leaving to do that position, and I kinda just slipped right into his role because I was an intern in that department,” said O'Keefe. She also spent time working at animal shelters, and on animal farms to gain experience in the field. She recommends getting a solid education in the Life Sciences (either Biology, Ecology, or Psychology) or Zoology, and also volunteering with animals. “The more experience you can get, the better,” said O'Keefe. “And do an internship. That's essential. Probably the most important thing is to do an internship at a zoo because that's how you can really get your foot in the door, and start meeting people.”
According to O'Keefe, getting a full-time zookeeper position at the Cincinnati Zoo is “a big deal.” There are some people who are part-time or seasonal keepers for years, and will never advance to a full-time position. Being educated and having work experience doesn't guarantee a full-time zookeeper job. “Basically, if you want to be a zookeeper, it all revolves around experience, luck, and timing. Obviously, there are a very limited number of jobs at the zoo being a keeper. Usually someone has to die or retire because lots of people don't leave the Cincinnati Zoo. It pays really competitively compared to other zoos, and it's honestly a great place to work,” said O'Keefe.
Seeing the animals happy is one of the many aspects of being a zookeeper that O'Keefe finds to be the most rewarding. Another is seeing the animals progress enough to be released back into the wild. On a personal level, she also particularly enjoys the open access to the zoo's other animals that comes with being a zookeeper. “Because I am a keeper, I can easily go into another department and pet a sloth, or walk a cheetah if I really wanted to. That's been a really cool part of the job,” said O'Keefe. And you thought that afternoon trip to Starbuck's was the highlight of your workday.
However, O'Keefe has found that despite the rewarding aspects of her job, there are some difficulties that accompany it as well. According to O'Keefe, “The most difficult part is seeing the animals die. Luckily, I haven't been here long enough to see that happen very often, but that's extremely difficult.” Also, adjusting to a zookeeper's schedule can be difficult for some at first. Animals don't take vacations or days off, so the zoo must be properly staffed 7 days a week. “Sometimes as a zookeeper, you have to work weekends and holidays, and there's really no exception to that because the animals need the same care 7 days a week. They don't really take any off days,” said O'Keefe. Her current “weekend” falls on Tuesdays on Wednesdays each week.
Landing her job as a full-time zookeeper was the just the beginning for O'Keefe. She will now work on obtaining her Rescue Dive certifications that are needed for her department. Also, she will undergo venomous training in the spring. Yes, you read that correctly – part of her job will be handling some of the venomous snakes located in the Reptile House. When I expressed my lifelong fear of snakes, O'Keefe was quick to point out that some snakes “can actually be really nice animals.” Sure. Whatever you say, Megan.
Regarding the snakes, O'Keefe said, “I would say they weren't my favorite when I started here, but we have so many snakes here at the zoo that you really can't avoid it, and we have a lot of snakes in our department. Snakes are actually really cool.” Since the Reptile House and Manatee Springs are under the same curator, she also works with reptiles. Along with the manatees, alligator, and crocodile that O'Keefe previously discussed, she also works with turtles, snakes, and fish. Professionally, the venomous training is a great addition to a zookeeper's resume since not everyone has the opportunity to participate in venomous training. (Again, I'll take your word for it, O'Keefe). This is another one of the many reasons why I'm not a zookeeper – their first instinct is to find a safe way to restrain a snake, while mine would be to run.
Overall, the duties of a zookeeper go far beyond hanging out with animals for hours. It's also a job that tends to stay with people after they've clocked out for the day. According to O'Keefe, working with animals has had an impact on her human interactions, and has taught her a lot about patience and energy. “There's a certain energy that you need to put forth when working with animals. You need to be relaxed and calm. I feel like people, as well as animals, vibe off your energy,” said O'Keefe.
Next time you visit the Cincinnati Zoo, make sure to say hello to O'Keefe and the manatees. If you're brave enough, see if she'll take you for a visit to the Reptile House.