Houston Zookeeper Crowned Golden Keeper

Our very own Sara Riger, Naturally Wild Swap Shop naturalist, has won the Golden Keeper award by the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). Sara was crowned champion after receiving the most “likes” from peers, family, and several supporters on the AAZK Facebook page contest.

Zoos and aquariums across the country celebrated National Zoo Keeper Week July 16 – 22, highlighting the diversity of zookeepers and their contributions to global conservation efforts. AAZK, celebrating their 50year anniversary, received nominations from several zookeepers around the country for the first-ever Golden Keeper award. Nominated by her close colleague, Katie Buckley-Jones, Sara was one of just 10 zookeepers chosen as a finalist.

Sara’s career working at zoos began more than two decades ago. She began working at the Bronx Zoo in New York 25 years ago working with birds and mammals. She then moved to an upstate New York zoo to work with primates and lions. From New York, Sara moved to Tennessee to work for the Nashville Zoo, where she helped open their Critter Encounters exhibit and later became a supervisor of mammals. For the past 13 years, Sara has worked at the Houston Zoo, caring for carnivores, primates, and now working in the Swap Shop. As a naturalist in the Swap Shop, she inspires guests to explore the outdoors and save animals in the wild.

You can meet and visit Sara, and learn all about the natural world, at the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, located in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. She’ll be there to greet you with a warm smile, and sometimes with an animal in-hand!

We are so proud to have someone as passionate, dedicated, and kind as Sara on our team. Please join us in congratulating Sara on this wonderful achievement!

National Zoo Keeper Week – Tyler’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back all week to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zookeepers!


Tyler W. Parker – Houston Toad SSP Coordinator/Studbook Keeper; Husbandry Keeper

I’m originally from the Midwest. I went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where I received a Bachelor’s in Zoology. I knew from elementary school that I wanted to be a zoo keeper.

houston toad

Some of my daily responsibilities are: cleaning, maintaining water quality, feeding toads, making new enclosures (tanks) for toads, breeding invertebrates for toad food, and applying medication to toads when necessary.

As a Species Survival Plan Coordinator (SSP)/Studbook keeper, I am in charge of helping coordinate and set up the inter-institutional breeding efforts for each breeding season, arranging transfers and breeding loans to all involved programs for future breeding endeavors, managing the genetic diversity for the Captive Assurance Colonies at all participating institutions. Throughout the breeding season, we also participate in facilitating egg releases with our partners, USFWS, TPWD, and Texas State University.

The most enjoyable part of my job is working with so many talented people and being able to see a difference we are making in helping to recover a critically endangered species only found in this area.

If you want to do this job, like anything, try and become a Jack of all trades. Don’t just limit yourself to working with one type or group of animals. Try and learn a little about everything. You’ll need to know a little about construction, water chemistry, biology, local policy and administration (wildlife law). Also, you’ll need to be willing and able to work well with others as a team and understand you are all working toward the same goals.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Agnieszka’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Agnieszka Podraza – Primate Keeper

I work in the Houston Zoo’s primate department and I have been here since January 2015. Before moving to Texas, I worked as a primate keeper at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas as well as other Midwest zoos and animal-related facilities. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with a Bachelor’s degree in zoology.

agnieszka-resizeOn a regular work day, the primate staff meets at 7AM to discuss the day’s plans. After saying “Good morning!” to all the primates, it’s time to prepare and deliver their breakfast. While the animals are busy eating, we spend the majority of our time preparing their outdoor exhibits. This includes cleaning, maintenance, setting up food, and putting out enrichment items. When an exhibit is ready, the animals are shifted outside so the keepers can set up their night holdings. Around noon, the animals receive some veggies or another snack. With the primates fed, it’s time for the keepers to enjoy their own lunch break! When our break ends in the afternoon, the primates can again enjoy extra food and treats. Keepers then use the rest of their time to train the animals, work on special projects, attend meetings, or create fun enrichment items for the next day.

One of the duties I most enjoy at my job is training. Primates are trained to present—or show—different body parts such as their ears, teeth, fingers, feet, etc. I delight in these training sessions because they help us take better care of the animals. In other words, if an animal has any cuts or scrapes, we can address those right away. Furthermore, I enjoy training because it allows me to build a relationship with that primate. A training session takes a lot of trust for both the animal and the trainer. After a lot of work is put in, a stronger relationship develops and that particular primate is more willing to work with me; this in turn makes the session more rewarding for both of us. It’s so exciting to see that moment when an animal realizes what you are asking them to do. It’s like a light bulb turning on in their mind.

Being a keeper is very physically demanding. It involves lifting, bending, climbing and staying on your feet for the majority of the day. Rain, shine, tornado, or hurricane, someone needs to be there to take care of the animals. Zoo keepers cannot decide to not show up to work. The lives of numerous exotic species depend on them, 365 days a year.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Alissa’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Alissa Van Der Kamp – Senior Primate Keeper

I get to work with all of the primates. I have a B.S. in animal science with a concentration in zoo and exotics. Typically you can find me working with chimpanzees, but I love every species of primate I work with. Everyone has a very distinct personality. Some are playful and some are affectionate, always presenting a back or a shoulder for us to groom them.

willie enrichment
Willie, one of the male chimpanzees, enjoys some great enrichment!

Training is a big part of our job. Since we don’t go inside the habitats with our primates, we rely on animal training. This helps them know when and how to move from their exhibit to their night houses so that we can clean and vice versa. Also training is a necessity when we need them to sit on a scale to monitor health. We even need to give them injections from time to time. All of these tasks are accomplished through training.

Another big aspect of my job is enrichment. Enrichment can be anything that is stimulating and encourages natural behaviors. We just added a few hammocks to the chimpanzee yard. With this addition to the exhibit, the chimps gain arboreal resting spots, new places to climb on, new arboreal travel paths, as well as shady spots. Adding hammocks involved three keepers, an extension ladder, two A-frame ladders, and about two hours of climbing, tying rope, and moving ladders! Skills like safe ladder handling, rope braiding, and power tool use may not be what people associate with zoo keepers, but they’re absolutely necessary!

National Zoo Keeper Week – Michelle

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Michelle Witek – Senior Keeper Children’s Zoo

ocelotSince I was a little girl, I have always been drawn to animals. This most likely led me to having a career involving animals. My path to the Zoo was not as clear to me then, but once I got accepted to Texas A&M University, I simultaneously began volunteering at the Houston Zoo. During three years of volunteering I was also privileged in receiving the Exxon Mobile Internship, which assisted me greatly in furthering my experience in this field. Once I graduated college with a Bachelors of Science degree in Wildlife Management, I knew that the Houston Zoo was where I wanted to be. With the networking and relationships I built while interning and volunteering, I was able to begin my career at the Houston Zoo only 9 short months after graduating college.

I have worked as zoo keeper for almost 8 years now, 6.5 years with the carnivore department and the last 1.5 years as part of the Children’s Zoo team. The part of my job that I enjoy the most is animal training and enrichment, which helps keep the animals active and stimulated. It also allows me to build stronger relationships with the animals under my care.

I think people interested in becoming a zoo keeper should know that the job involves many fun and interesting aspects, but it comes with its share of difficulties as well. An unusual work schedule and dealing with the unpredictable and sometimes unbearable Texas weather are certainly difficult. But, at the end of the day it is all worth it. I get tremendous fulfillment from my work and enjoy what I do immensely. I am continuously learning and growing as a keeper every single day, and I cannot think of a better profession to be a part of.

 

National Zoo Keeper Week – Wren’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Wren Schroeder – Hoofstock Keeper

hoof stockI always knew I wanted to work with animals, but I wasn’t always 100% sure how I wanted to do that. So I did an internship working with birds of prey and hoofstock animals at another AZA zoo, just to see if I for sure liked it. I realized that if I could be an unpaid intern and be excited to get out of bed every day to go to a job like that, then that was what I wanted to do as a career.

The most enjoyable part about my job is finding people in the public that appreciate a unique species as much as I do. Seeing the excitement, enthusiasm, and compassion of guests is what I love the most. What makes this job worthwhile and the most rewarding are the amazing guests that will sit through a Meet the Keeper chat and express their curiosity about the animals and ask questions to learn more about the individual animals here at the Houston Zoo and the conservation efforts being done internationally and locally to help different species.

I would advise volunteering/interning as much as possible. You can sit and learn about animals and their behaviors in books. Then just simply applying what you have learned in those books by working around them, seeing how they react to things, and getting hands on experience is what truly will help you in zoo keeping career. Also, work with some different species while you volunteer, other than just the obvious ones you already like. You would be surprised by animals that never really interested you, but then after working with them you have a new found respect for them.

I would want people to know that this job is not just about feeding the animals and cleaning up after them. After enduring the weather Houston throws at us, doing workload that comes with working with any animal, and the highs and lows of the job. It is then also about taking the time during the day to go out and educate the public about each of the animals that we get the opportunity to work with. Every animal we work with is different and unique in their own way. Getting to see the guests’ faces light up when we share our own stories about each of these animals is what really makes the hard work worth it.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Chris’ Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Chris Valdez – Herpetology Keeper

IMG_2239I’ve always had interest in small critters and spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I bought my first ball python when I was in the 6th grade and from then on, continued to accumulate as many species as my parents would let me keep. Not knowing exactly what I wanted to do but having a strong passion for nature, I attended Texas A&M University and received my degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science.

After graduating, I began volunteering at the Houston Zoo in the herpetology department and a year later, I applied for an open position and I feel very fortunate to have been hired. It has been an awesome experience being able to work with a large and diverse collection of animals in reptile house. In my section, I am responsible for the daily care of a variety of rattlesnakes and tropical pit vipers.

When I first started at the Zoo, working with venomous snakes was definitely a new experience and challenge for me. Now, it is one of my favorite parts of the job! I think it is important for people to know that the animals we take care of here are not “pets” and are not just here for out amusement, but that they are here primarily for education and to spread a conservation message.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Kenny’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Kenny Stange – Aquarium Keeper

IMG_20150718_112745467As an Aquarium Keeper at the Houston Zoo, I am responsible for maintaining appropriate water chemistry and animal health for many of the freshwater exhibits in the Kipp Aquarium and the Natural Encounters building. Regular testing of water quality, frequent water changes, and proper maintenance of filtration equipment ensures the best habitat for our aquatic life. Supplements are added to promote plant growth and we also add vitamins to our prepared diets to see that our fish get all the necessary nutrition. I SCUBA dive some of the exhibits to inspect and clean them. Additionally, I enjoy leading keeper chats during the week, where I get the chance to interact with our guests and teach them about the areas I work in.

I work with the Yellow-Bellied Piranha and Amazon fishes in the Kipp Aquarium, take care of the freshwater fishes and turtles in the Natural Encounters building, as well as the Brackish exhibit, where you can find the very interesting and peculiar Four-eyed Fish. A very popular attraction for Zoo guests is the Red-Bellied Piranha exhibit in Natural Encounters and the exciting keeper chats that are presented there.

My passion for aquatic life began as a kid when I spent my summers around the Atlantic Ocean and the many lakes of South Carolina. This fascination increased as I grew and began maintaining my own aquarium at home. The journey that brought me to the Houston Zoo began shortly after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science. I decided being an aquarist was my calling after completing my degree and spending several years volunteering in the Aquarium Department at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. I focused on learning everything I could about aquarium husbandry and applied for every aquarium and zoo opening I could find. My persistence and determination to fulfill my dream of becoming an aquarist finally paid off when I got a call from Houston Zoo after three years of diligent searching.

For those wanting to become an aquarist themselves, I highly recommend getting involved in field work, maintaining your own aquarium and volunteering at public aquariums early and often. Read everything you can on the subject. My opportunity here in Houston came from working hard and earning a strong recommendation from my supervisor at Riverbanks Zoo. I wish anyone interested in becoming an aquarist the best of luck. It is an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to work alongside great people and interact with wonderful guests on a daily basis.

I hope everyone can appreciate that Aquarists at the Houston Zoo are not simply ensuring animals are alive and well fed. Our jobs require a strong foundation in biology, chemistry, animal behavior and even physics. We spend countless hours maintaining exhibits and life support systems, preparing proper diets (not flake food!), and participating in several conservation projects.

 

 

National Zoo Keeper Week – Amy’s Story

From July 19-25, 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 hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Amy Lavergne – Senior Zookeeper in the Children’s Zoo

photo-2I have known I wanted to work with animals for most of my life. When I was 5, I went to Brookfield Zoo as a kid and saw their dolphin show. After that, I knew I had to give up my life long dream of working at Dairy Queen to work with animals. I did the zoo crew program at the zoo in my hometown and eventually worked there. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in animal biology, I was able to get a job at the Houston Zoo. Fast forward 14 years and I’m still loving what I do. I’m a primary keeper in the desert/prairie section of the Children’s Zoo.  I take care of bats, mongoose, roadrunners, and various smaller animals every day.  I also train pigs, birds of prey, our skunk, and our bobcat. One of the favorite parts of my job is teaching people about the animals that I take care of.

“What do you want people to know about your job?” – It is a lot of hard work, made even harder in the heat!

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