The unsung heroes of wildlife all around the world are zookeepers. They work all year round, often spending their weekends, holidays, birthdays, and more working hard to make sure the animals they take care of are getting around the clock care. Even if it’s raining, snowing, or blistering heat, they are there outside scrubbing and feeding.
There are also a ton of misconceptions about what their job entails. Many people think it includes just playing with and cuddling animals all day, when that is actually usually never the case. Zookeeping is a hard job. It can be physically and emotionally draining, and is done for very little pay. But if you talk to almost any keeper, they will tell you that they are not in it for the money.
We got to chat with Danielle, a keeper that works at Animal Tracks Inc, a facility that specializes in taking in wildlife that were often confiscated as illegal pets. Her love and passion for wildlife and the animals she takes care of are undeniable. She gave us some advice for those looking to go into the field, why zoos are so important, the best and worst aspects of her job, and so much more.
Tiana from Wildlife Tree: Tell me a little about where you work and what you do.
Danielle: I work at Animal Tracks Inc, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We take in animals that have either been kept as illegal pets, or pets that have been confiscated or relinquished to us, or retired movie animals. So we do have some animals that have been in some feature length films or commercials that are no longer working because they are getting too old, or don’t necessarily need the work anymore for whatever reason.
Before Covid hit we were open 7 days a week to give tours to anyone and everyone that wanted to come meet our animals along with a hands-on, up close experience with our animals. We loved to be able to have people make a connection but also use it as an educational opportunity to teach people that even though they are here with us, it doesn't mean you can’t help their wild counterparts as well.
We also did school events, educational programs at libraries, veterans homes, or for girl scouts where we could take animals and do a small presentation. When covid hit we had to shut everything down and find a way to keep the business going and keep providing for the animals. We started doing Zoom tours and popups since everyone was sitting at home, why not have a monkey join your class. We were doing that for a little bit, now with everything open we are trying to figure out how to get our doors back open and our financial situation back in order to get people connecting with our animals again. (To learn how you can help them, click here).
My role at Animal Tracks is an animal keeper/educator/presenter/tour guide. A general day there includes a lot of cleaning, feeding, making diets, preparing enrichment, and when we were open, doing tours as well. So things have shifted at the facility but we are making it work. I have taken my role as a tour guide and shifted it towards social media and have been helping run our TikTok.
Tiana: Where did you get your experience?
Danielle: I attended Moorpark College and America’s Teaching Zoo's, Exotic Animal Training and Management Program which is a 22 month long program that teaches you how to be a zookeeper. You learn how to take care of the animals and train the animals properly and humanely, and give them the best life they could possibly have while under human care.
Once I got my degree there, I had a few different jobs here and there before I settled down at Animal Tracks.
Tiana: What made you want to work with animals and wildlife?
Danielle: I have been wanting to work with animals since I was a kid. I remember especially as a toddler my mom would take me to the zoo and we would spend all day there because I wouldn’t want to go home. I also had all kinds of pets at home and I was that kid on the weekend that instead of watching cartoons I would be watching Animal Planet, Jack Hanna, and Zaboomafu. Any time anyone would ask me what I want to be when I grow up I would say a dolphin trainer. My goal in life as a kid was always to be Eliza Thornberry.
Tiana: What do you say to people who think it would be cool to own an exotic pet?
Danielle: I joke and I say come work with me for a day and see if you still feel that same at the end of the day. But in all seriousness, these animals don’t want to be in diapers all day long or kept in a cage or treated like a baby. I mean that mostly towards primates because I feel like people see how we work with our primates and think ‘Oh I can do that at my own house. I want a monkey as a pet.’ We try to explain to them that we have spent years building a relationship with them and have gone to school to study how primate behavior works and how we can communicate with them so that we don’t offend any of the primates and put anyone's lives in jeopardy. That’s how we do what we do. Having an exotic in your home can not only be dangerous for the animal, but dangerous for the people living in the home as well. Especially if there are small children or other pets involved.
I tell people all the time when they say they know someone with a savannah cat, that I am sure you do, but it all depends on the hybridization. You don’t know how much of exotic vs domestic you are going to get. The same thing goes for a wolf hybrid. You could get an animal that looks just like a husky, but acts just like a wolf, and at any moment that exotic wild instinct could kick in and you can be in some serious danger.
Tiana: What do you think is the biggest misconception about working with animals?
Danielle: That is all fun and play. People assume all I do all day long is cuddle with animals and play with them all day long and that it is the easiest job in the world. That is the farthest from the truth. Most of my day consists of cleaning, and being covered in questionable things. It is a rare day that I go home and not be covered in pee or pooped on. Not only that, but as a zookeeper you kind of have to become a jack of all trades. You have to learn to make diets for everyone, what foods are proper for each animal and what can make them sick or not make them sick. You also have to become a carpenter and a mechanic because you are fixing tractors and rebuilding enclosures. You get injured a lot, but not because you work with animals but because you walk into things or get scratched by something.
It is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and I think people don’t realize that we are very under-appreciated. The animals look the way they do, behave the way they do, and the enclosures look the way they look because of the people behind the scenes.
Tiana: What is the best and worst part about your job?
Danielle: The best part is the memories, the experiences that I get, the people I get to meet, and of course the animals I get to work with and the bonds I get with those animals. To be able to share my experiences with other people and really affect someone else's life. I am also a dancer so my whole life has been about performing and entertaining people and now that I get to entertain people in an educational way. If I can at least impact one person's life I know I am doing my job right.
The worst part has to be when an animal gets sick, when you lose an animal, or when things at a certain facility or job aren’t necessarily what you imagine you would be. You kind of have to go in with an open mind and realize that this isn’t an easy job by any means and it is going to be hard work. If you are willing to put in the time and the effort it will work out in the end, but sometimes the journey is hard. Especially when you get super attached to an animal and all of a sudden they get sick or they get old and pass away. That part never gets easy. Working with a living creature that isn’t going to be around forever, or you have to leave to go to another job and you have to leave the animals you built a relationship with.
Tiana: Why do you think zoos are important?
Danielle: I think zoos are important because it gives people a different perspective into animals. I think it also shows some species that people have never heard of or ever seen before, and they can really connect with those species that may have never had the chance to. Like seeing a panda up close or even seeing a fennec fox. People go crazy for our fennec fox at Animal Tracks and say ‘He is so small and so tiny I never knew that.’ Once they hear the education part of it they can take that information home and do what they want, but hopefully it impacts enough that they say I want to do my part and help, and want to help these wildlife creatures that we need on this planet. Because if we destroy everything, we aren’t far behind.
I think especially with the shift that zoos have taken even just in the last 10 years gearing more towards conservation and education and changing the verbiage that we use. People are really starting to shift away from the negative aspect of the zoo and just thinking they are trapped in there forever. People are now able to take so many opportunities to learn and see behind the scenes to really get a feel of what these animals get on a daily basis. I think that's what's so important is the stigma behind what zoos used to be to what they are doing now.
I think zoos can be especially important for young kids that are so caught up in their phones and social media or their friends. They can step into this universe that has nothing to do with any drama going on in their life. They can go to a zoo and look at some animals for a few hours, and I think zoos really help with mental health as well. At least for me when I need a break from reality I want to go look at some animals.
Tiana: How do you think people can help with conserving wildlife and our planet?
Danielle: There are so many ways now people can help. Obviously recycling is a big one. I feel like especially in California we had a great shift of supporting reusable plastics, and getting rid of one time use things. Then covid hit and everything went to “just throw it away.” Now I feel like the trash is back in full force especially with masks and gloves. I feel like if people would just put more thought into it, it doesn’t have to be such an epidemic.
There are also tons of places you can volunteer at different at. I tell people all the time to ask a million questions. If you are questioning anything or don't really know how you feel about something or want to know what you can do to help, just ask. When I train new volunteers I tell them all the time I would rather you ask me something a million times than have someone get hurt.
Also do your own research. Don't just assume that just because one species is treated one way in the wild or one animal got some publicity on social media that that is the way it is for everything. Do your own research and be educated. I think that is the best way you can help. Especially with everything going on in the world right now, we need to not be ignorant to reality. Animals are in serious jeopardy because human beings are destroying everything.
Tiana: What advice would you give to people who want to work with animals?
Danielle: Start off by volunteering somewhere and see if it is something you really want to do. Because some people have this idea that it is going to be the best job ever, or the most glamorous job and you get to have fun all day. Then they get into the world and it is not what they were expecting at all. Again, doing your research. Making sure you ask keepers. Go to zoos and talk to keepers. That is why I ended up going to Moorpark and doing the EATM program because I talked to a whale trainer at Seaworld and asked, ‘How do I become you?’ and he told me about it.
I think anyone who wants to go into any part of the industry, whether it is keepers or a vet, is to test it out and get experience to see if it’s what you want to do. Make sure so you are not wasting your time or your money. This isn’t a lucrative industry. I tell anyone that is looking to make a lot of money that this isn’t what you want to do. If you want to have amazing experiences, great memories, work hard, and be around some really cool people and really cool animals, this is the place you need to be. But make sure you are financially ready to be in this industry.
Tiana: If you didn’t work with animals what would you want to do?
Danielle: I probably would try to pursue dance more professionally. That or working with kids. When I went to school initially it was going to be for child development because I thought maybe I would be a teacher. Or therapy. I am finishing up my degree right now in psychology. So if the animal stuff ends up not working out I think I would go that route. I feel like I could help teens especially because I went through so much as a teen I would want to be that person for someone else.
Tiana: If you were to pick an animal to describe your personality what would it be and why?
Danielle: I feel like I have so many different levels to me I think I would be a mixture. Maybe a dolphin, cheetah, and owl. I know that’s so random. But because I love performing and entertaining people I feel like that's the more dolphin side of me. The cheetah side is a little bit more coy and a little bit more standoff-ish, but can be up front if I needed to be. But also like to be in the background sometimes too. Being an owl, not because I like being up at night, but more that I can be more reserved and closed off, and don't really let people in unless I really feel like I want to or they deserve to. Just because of everything that has gone on in my life I feel like I have a lot of walls that have been built up. You’re not going to know I’m here unless I want you to know I’m here, like an owl.
Next time you visit a zoo or your favorite animal facility, be sure to take a second to thank any animal keeper you see. While zookeepers get a lot of their joy from seeing their animals interact with some new enrichment they are trying, or taking a comfortable nap in a clean enclosure, their hard work too often goes unrecognized. So if you are someone who enjoys your local zoo, don’t forget to show some appreciation to those who make your visit possible.
Feel free to give a shoutout to Danielle or leave any questions you might have in the comments! Check us out on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And don’t forget to sign up with your email to stay updated on all our sales and specials!
Animal Tracks Inc could use your help! They are needing to move to a new location, and as a non-profit, they rely on donations and fundraising. To learn more about how you can help support the awesome animals and work they do, click here.