From July 20-26, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!
Keeper Profile: Stephanie Mantilla
Hi Stephanie! Tell us a little about yourself. Since we’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?
Sure! I have actually been at the Houston Zoo for three years now and I work with our carnivores. I hold a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science and I have lots of experience working with animals. Before I came to Houston, I worked at the Brookfield Zoo for three years, Virginia Aquarium for two years, and held internships at the Cosley Zoo, Racine Zoo, and The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota.
So what does a typical day look like for you in the carnivore department?
I come in at 6 a.m. and our entire department has a morning meeting to plan out the day. After that, I’ll go to my section and we begin to work on training sessions with the animals that I care for (Willow the black bear cub, Mattie the lion, Tarak the clouded leopard, and Haley the cougar). This helps us maintain the relationships that all keepers have with their animals. It takes a lot of hard work to establish trust with an animal. Our next task it to shift our animals around so we can monitor diets and at this time we’ll also administer any medications if necessary. Next, it’s cleaning the exhibit areas, then more shifting to get the group on exhibit and even more cleaning the inside areas that the animals just left. Enrichment is an important part of the day so I’m always sure to spend some time working in various enrichment to the routine. We’ll do keeper chats and/or lion and tiger window tours depending on the day. And guess what…. all of this happens before lunch! The afternoons tend to be a little quieter, and we typically work on things like developing future enrichment ideas, training exercises, and finishing projects.
What would you say is your favorite part of working at the Zoo?
For me, it’s seeing animals up-close every day. It’s also very rewarding to watch our animals develop behaviors after working tirelessly on our training sessions.
What would you say is the hardest part of your job?
It has to be the weather! From freezing winters in Chicago, to the humid heat of Houston, we’re out there all the time, all day long.
What is one thing you want visitors to know about being a zookeeper?
Being a zookeeper isn’t just playing with animals. Nearly all zookeepers have at least a bachelor’s degree, some master’s degrees. If you’re interested in becoming a zookeeper, it’s important to pay attention in school and get good grades.
Do you have any good stories you can share with us?
Sometimes, Shasta the cougar likes to play a game before he will shift to our inside areas. Cougars enjoy stalking their prey, so if Shasta can see us inside our building, we’ll turn our backs to him. When we turn back around to face him, he will be closer but frozen in a different position as he stalks closer to us. It is like a more intense version of “red light, green light.” Don’t worry though, we’re not in Shasta’s area. We’re in a safe spot so Shasta can enjoy the chase, and we can enjoy providing some enrichment that mimics natural behaviors.
Stay tuned for more interviews with our fantastic keepers!