WHEATON – Each year, thousands of children, parents and animal enthusiasts come to Cosley Zoo to enjoy the collection of local and international animals.
Behind the exhibits, wielding whistles, feed, harnesses and shovels is a staff of dedicated animal lovers: the zookeepers.
The job seems a dream to many young zoo-goers – but what does it take to get it? And if you’re lucky enough to be hired by Cosley, what do you actually do?
“A lot of jobs are totally unpaid,” said zookeeper Caryn Johnson. “You have to really pay your dues and find out if it’s something you’re really passionate about. We are here all the time – holidays, weekends, 365. It’s a tough field to get your foot in the door.”
Johnson said she has completed a number of internships since graduating with a degree in animal science several years ago, most of which gave no compensation.
"It's definitely competitive," said Zoo Director Susan Wahlgren. "For us the big change came when we first became accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums ... We started getting really top-notch people. There are only about 10,000 zookeeping jobs in the U.S., and if you don't have a four-year degree and internships and volunteer stints it is very, very tough."
Heather Johnson – no relation – said she only became a zookeeper at Cosley a few weeks ago, though she began volunteering in 2009 and interned at the Brookfield Zoo.
But she said the animals and people she works with make it all worthwhile.
“I was in internships for so long, when I got this job, I was like, ‘Whoah, I get paid!’” she said. "It was just a bonus."
Heather and Caryn are two of the eight part-time zookeepers on staff. Both work outside jobs on the three days they aren’t working at the zoo each week. The zoo also has two full-time keepers.
So what does slogging through that much rejection, hard work and due-paying allow you to do at the Cosley Zoo?
Turns out, because of its size, the zookeepers at Cosley have to – or get to – do a little bit of everything.
"We love what we do – we love coming to work," Caryn said. "A lot of people think 'All you do is pick up poop all day,' but our job is actually very well-rounded. We prepare different enrichment items to keep the animals as stimulated as possible. We prepare diets, so we're nutritionists. We are behaviorists, we do training. We observe our animals and monitor any changes we have."
The zookeepers get the chance to build relationships with a number of animals, although they often train specific ones more than others. Heather, for example, works with the zoo's hedgehogs and is beginning to train its red-tailed hawk, while Caryn has crate trained the raccoon she is responsible for.
"There are people who can't even get their dogs crate-trained," Caryn said. "And we have them put their paws out to get their nails trimmed, get on the scale, lots of other functional behaviors. It's fun for them and fun for us."
Zookeepers often serve as the face of the zoo, stopping to explain what they are doing to those watching or leading private educational experiences such as the zoo's Bobcat Backstage program.
They always have something to do and no two days are the same, Heather said.
"When you are in those internships, it's just rewarding to be working with the animals and doing the work," Heather said. "When I'm here, it's not work ... I get so much joy teaching kids new things. Sometimes they teach me new things. And I love working with the animals. It's just what I am passionate about."
Wahlgren, who has been at Cosley for 30 years, when there were only two full-time employees, said it is not easy work, but it is rewarding for those who are passionate about it.
"It's great to work with people who are so positive and so dedicated to what they do," she said. "There are constant problems, but they always have ideas and solutions. There is a lot of ownership for what they do ... It's more of a life choice, not just a job."