Photos by Houston Cofield
Since opening over a century ago, the Memphis Zoo has housed tens of thousands of different animals from all over the world. The zoo began in 1906 as a way to care for a retired baseball mascot black bear named Natch. From its humble beginning, the zoo has become one of the highest regarded zoos in the country.
Currently there are over 4,500 animals in the zoo’s care, representing over 500 different species spanning across all walks of wildlife. The zoo’s mission is to preserve wildlife through education, conservation and research.
None of that would be possible without the massive staff it takes to keep an operation like the Memphis Zoo running. The zoo employs hundreds of staff members, including veterinarians, researchers, curators, administrators, customer service representatives, vendors and countless others.
However, behind every great animal is a great zookeeper — whose job is not only to take care of the animals and their exhibits, but also educate the public and promote conservation.
It takes a lot to become a zookeeper for an accredited zoological organization, which is an extremely competitive industry. Generally, one must have a college degree within a related science, a record of volunteer experience working with animals, the physical capabilities to work with strenuous and laborious conditions and the personality—and patience—to work with the general public.
Continue reading to learn more about zookeepers John Stanis, Katy Wade and Jenny Mitchell.
Cat Country and Zambezi Zookeeper
I always knew I wanted to work with animals, and being a zookeeper is the best path to that. So, I always knew I wanted to be a zookeeper.
I’m originally from Long Island, New York. I started volunteering places when I was a teenager. It started with local shelters and stuff like that. Then I started interning at zoos, and eventually, I worked my way up to becoming a keeper. At 23, I’m a fairly young keeper.
Memphis was the first place to offer me a full-time job, and the industry is highly competitive so I took it. I applied for the job in the first place because Memphis has a really wonderful and diverse collection of animals here. Especially their big cats, which I’ve always had a really deep passion for. Specifically I’ve always loved tigers.
I’m lucky to get to work with the big cats here, but I also work with the hippos and crocodiles in the Zambezi River Exhibit. Every time I work with new animals, I learn to love them.
I had never worked with snow leopards before, but they became a favorite of mine very quickly. They’re beautiful and charismatic. Even just aesthetically, big cats are almost unmatched. I’m interested in most mega-fauna, generally.
But the adaptations that tigers or snow leopards have evolved for hunting in their habitats are just cool and interesting. Our male snow leopard is extremely wary of new people, and it takes a lot to gain his trust. You really are building relationships with them, and it's something you have to continually work on. So, it's a really rewarding experience when you made a bond like that.
The corona virus has changed our day to day a bit, but we’ve always been extremely cautious with the animals in general. Now whenever we’re working close to the animals or preparing their food we’ve started wearing face masks and gloves to try and prevent risking exposure to them.
Different species have responded differently to the masks. It’s definitely taking a little longer for some of them to get used to it. But they’ve started recognizing our voices more and becoming a little more comfortable with them.
Bird Keeper and Hoofstock Keeper
I grew up on a beef cattle farm in Middle Tennessee. So, I’ve been around animals my entire life. My dad was actually involved in bull riding for the majority of my childhood. My mom worked at the local co-op and she ran the tack room. So, we were around horses and cows primarily, but we were the house that took whatever needed a home. We ended up with a lot of stray dogs, goats and chickens—your basic farm life.
Growing up on a farm was probably the best preparation for a job like this. Growing up where animals are your lifestyle, you have such an individualized knowledge and way of working with animals that people who have never experienced that just can never have. I’m very grateful for growing up where I did.
Even though I’m originally from Middle Tennessee, a lot of my family is from Memphis. So, I ended up coming here a lot more as a kid than I did the Nashville Zoo. Some of my earliest memories are here. There’s one in particular that’s mostly a picture-based memory, but there’s this photo my family loves to circulate of me when I was six-years-old and two of my cousins in Primate Canyon sitting in front of the gorilla exhibit, and all of us, the gorilla included, are doing the exact same pose. I’m 27 now, so it’s been a while.
I went to school in Jackson and at the time they didn’t have a zoology department, so my degree is actually in general biology with a concentration in zoology. For the longest time, I just wanted to work in research in the field. I didn’t think I wanted to work with the public as much as zoos work with the public.
I never actually wanted to work at a zoo, but your experiences really broaden when you say yes to certain things. So, that’s how I got here. I was hired as a seasonal employee and just stepped in.
Every place that I’ve worked animal-related has been very different. Each one has brought something to the table. When I worked at the Tennessee Safari Park in Alamo, outside of Jackson, I got experience raising wallabies, tamarins and kangaroos. These were animals I never thought I would be around, and then I got experience raising them from birth.
I ended up interning at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Texas, and I loved that kind of private setting. It had about 30 something big cats, 30 something bears and a couple primates. That was a whole new ball game of learning where all of those animals were coming from and the places that they had been. The fact that we were rescuing them from these situations that people just don’t know are happening.
I started working at the Memphis Zoo in August of 2018 for a seasonal part-time position, then I got hired as a bird keeper in October of that year. It was a pretty quick transition.
The Memphis Zoo has been teaching people facts about animals that they have no idea about. For example, people are always surprised that the penguins are out in summer, but these are actually a warm-weathered species of penguins that we have. It’s just things people don’t think about, but every day is different.
I never really had a significant passion for birds, I kind of just fell into it, if I’m being completely honest. It’s ended up being so much fun, though. I’ve really fallen in love with them. Honestly, it’s hard not to. They have such great personalities. A lot of people don’t even know birds have personalities!
The penguins have been a really fun surprise. I really didn’t want to work with them at first because they can be a little bit aggressive when you first meet them and that kind of spooked me a little bit. But now they’re some of my favorite parts of this job.
I’ve been around animals my entire life, and I feel very blessed to have parents who were also animal people. It’s been fun letting my friends and family know that zookeeping isn’t just a run-of-the-mill, nine-to-five kind of job. It’s something you kind to have to be suited for. You have to step into it knowing what you’re getting yourself into and being willing to say yes to a lot of different things.
Just getting to educate my friends, family and the public I feel is really important. Letting them know the nuances of these different animals has been really fun and rewarding.
Down the road I would love to get back to working with private sanctuaries and rescues. Eventually, I would like to be out in the field working hands-on with a specific group of animals. I haven't decided which one. I think everytime I work with a new animal that species jumps to the top of the list. I think I would like to become a little more specialized, but right now I’m early on in my career, so I think getting hands on with a little bit of everything is really cool.
I'm a born and raised Memphian. I went to zoo camp here, but I don’t have a lot of specific memories because something cool was always happening. I looked forward to it every single day. It’s one thing to come here as a guest, but being able to see the behind-the-scenes stuff is a whole different experience. I remember, one time we got to watch the keepers feed the piranhas in the aquarium—things you never really wonder about. Just seeing what these animals actually eat was really cool.
I went to University of Memphis and got my Bachelor's of Science in Biology. I started volunteering for whatever I could and eventually worked my way up. I landed a seasonal job in the giraffe exhibit five years ago. I moved up to working in nutrition and eventually I was able to get my foot in the door with elephants because I'd been here for a few years and made a good name for myself. The zoo field is so competitive, so you really need to accept any job you can get, but luckily, I was able to stay in Memphis.
I was able to study abroad when I was in college. I went to South Africa and fell in love with African hoofstock there. I really like African hoofstock.
I like working really hard for my animals, and I like earning my showers and Taco Bell every day. I’ve always loved elephants, but I wouldn’t say I was ‘Elephants or bust!’ Like I said, you kind of have to take whatever position you can get.
Most people at the zoo start out with an absolute internship. I never had an internship, I just volunteered and landed a job, which is pretty rare in the industry. When I did actually get the job I was terrified of doing my job properly. I remember somebody seeing me rake for the first and being like, ‘Wow… You’re doing that really weird.’ It freaked me out and made me feel really self-concious. Then I remembered, I’m left-handed, and that’s why they thought it was weird. I got out of my head and kept working.
People always tell me, ‘Your job is so cool! You just get to play with elephants all day!’ I’m always like, ‘Oh, no… I clean up for them all day.’ But, I definitely do play with them a little bit, which is very cool. I love how obviously intelligent elephants are. But, everyday I’m here, I’m continually building my relationships with them. I’m continually earning their trust, and they are continuing to earn mine too. Just like with people, relationships with animals are constantly evolving. Whether I’m here for one day of 10 years, we’re constantly building something together.
I'd like to think they enjoy seeing me even if that just means they enjoy it because they know I’m coming with food.
People always ask if I get used to working with elephants, and the answer is yes and no. That novel feeling of like, ‘Wow, I’m working with elephants,’ never really wears off, but you start to expect the day to day stuff.
All of them have different personalities, and they’re really intelligent animals—but they’re not human. So, I really try not to assign them emotions. If there is one emotion they share with humans it’s ‘hangry.’ When they’re hungry they’re definitely sassy. Their other emotions or personalities are driven from the fact that they are a matriarchal society, so some are more dominant and others are more subordinate.
The more subordinate ones are... Well, I don’t think polite is the word, but they are more respectful of others and are more aware of where they are. Whereas our elephant Gina will just bulldoze through everybody looking for food. They eat several hundred pounds of food a day.
We exclusively use positive reinforcement here. For instance if we need to check their feet, it’s their choice. They know they’ll get a treat if they let us, but if they want to ignore us and walk away, that’s their choice to make. They're incredibly food motivated, so they generally participate in training sessions or wellness checks because they know they’ll be rewarded.
I know not everybody believes in zoos, but I’m really a proponent of ‘seeing is believing.’ I feel like we are unaware of everything going on in the world, especially on other continents. I hope when people see the animals here, that they realize that they live somewhere else besides the zoo and that we need to make sure they still have a place to live.
The pandemic has had a huge effect on how we do our job, because conservation and educating the public is a big part of our work as zookeepers. We host a fundraiser every year for Elephants for Africa, we’ve raised over $50,000 for them over the years. Elephants for Africa is an elephant conservation charity committed to protecting endangered African elephants in Botswana through research and education. To me that’s a good example of how our zoo can directly affect conservation.
We’re also able to write grants, send equipment and even send people over to help. I was able to go to Botswana last year, bringing camera traps to help track elephants to prevent them from coming into farmlands. It was a dream come true. I never thought I would have the chance to be a part of conservation efforts in that capacity. I feel like I can have a direct impact on part of the world by working as a zookeeper.