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.
On 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.