Earlier this year, federal agents seized 68 protected big cats from Tiger King Park in Thackerville, Oklahoma, for Endangered Species Act violations. According to a statement from the Justice Department, the lions, tigers, lion-tiger hybrids and one jaguar did not have proper shelter, food or veterinary care. The animal park was owned by Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe but was previously owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic,” from the TV series “Tiger King.”
As an aside, according to Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Maldonado-Passage, 58, was born in Garden City, Kansas, as Joseph Allen Schreibvogel.
He has been called a “zookeeper,” but Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo curator and supervisor Ashley Burdick recently told high school students interested in careers in zoology not to use “Tiger King” as a guide.
“That’s not how a reputable facility runs itself,” Burdick said.
Her presentation, “Careers in the Zoological Field,” was made at this year’s Jack Kilby STEM Day at Barton Community College, where high school students were invited to explore career options that use science, technology, engineering and/or math.
Some zoos have an “entertainment aspect,” Burdick said. The Great Bend zoo’s mission is “to educate the public and encourage wildlife conservation, while providing an enriched zoo experience.” In addition, it has a raptor rehabilitation program for injured birds of prey.
“A very rewarding part of doing rehab is seeing a creature go free into the wild (after receiving care),” Burdick said.
Founded in 1953, the zoo is one of Great Bend’s biggest attractions.
What does it take to become a zookeeper? Burdick told students that reputable zookeepers typically have a four-year degree in zoology or a related field such as biology, environmental science or animal science, followed by one or more internships. There are also specialized two-year zookeeper degrees.
“It’s a difficult field to get into because a lot of people want to do it,” she said. Those who enter careers at zoos need to be hard-working, problem solvers, demonstrate patience and responsibility, and be willing to work in all weather conditions. Above all, they must have compassion for animals.
Animals can be trained to cooperate with keepers. Poppy the binturong (also known as a bearcat) will enter a crate to be moved for a reward of grapes. Toby the leopard will come to a mesh wall to receive an injection and to get his head scratched, which he enjoys.
“He looks like a big cat but he’s still a leopard,” Burdick said, mentioning the caution and patience used when approaching the animals.
“If a 500-pound lion doesn’t want to do something, he’s not going to do it,” she said. There are mistakes in her job that can cost lives – of zoo animals and of humans.
“Ninety percent of a keeper’s day is cleaning,” she said. The other 10% may include observation, maintenance, training animals, preparing food, feeding, helping with medical procedures and physical exams, and creating and delivering enrichment devices to animals to keep them physically and mentally engaged.
According to the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), being a zookeeper requires kneeling, climbing, crawling and even running. They are required to carry and lift heavy food and straw bales. Keeping detailed records is also part of the job.
Larger zoos provide more career opportunities. Burdick listed a few job titles and fields at zoos: director, keeper, educator, veterinarian or vet’s assistant, horticultural/landscaping, public relations, marketing, maintenance, and commissary keeper.
Gifts for animals
The Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo’s gift shop now has an “animal gift tree” for anyone who wants to purchase a special toy for the zoo's animals.