From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!
Keeper Profile: Lucy Dee Sheppard
Hey Lucy! Tell us a little about yourself. We’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, so can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?
Absolutely! I work with primates here and I’ve been at the Zoo for the past 6 years. Actually, the Houston Zoo was my first job and I even interned here before I was hired as a keeper.
What can a primate keeper expect to experience in a typical day?
The answer… a lot? You ready for this? Here we go.
Each keeper is assigned to one of our 7 animal sections every day, or as our dietitian. Starting at 7 a.m., we meet with the whole department to discuss what’s going on that day and share news from across the sections. From 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., we prepare diets and make the rounds. During the 8-9 a.m. hour, we clean our exhibits, put out enrichment items(objects or certain types of food to stimulate minds and encourage natural behaviors) and deliver breakfast outside. Then, it’s time to shift the animals onto their exhibits. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., we clean the indoor night-house areas and put additional enrichment inside for when the animals come in at night. During lunchtime, we feed our animals – some examples of food could be plant material browse (leafy branches), primate biscuits, or ice treats. After all the primates have had their lunch, the primate keeper team eats – usually between 1 and 2 p.m. The late afternoons are spent providing more food to our animals and working on some animal training sessions. We may also work on projects like exhibit maintenance or making complex enrichment. Afternoons are also a great time for meetings due to the busy mornings!
What’s the part of your job that you enjoy the most?
I love to work with animals on training behaviors. Primates are very intelligent and they can be taught a number of different behaviors. The behaviors we teach them help us with husbandry. A good example of this would be teaching our chimpanzees to present specific body parts to us. This allows us to check legs, arms, and hands for any scrapes or notable marks so we can be sure everyone stays healthy and happy.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is when an animal passes away. We work with our animals every day, often spending more time with them than we do our own families. Because of that hard work, along with our access to amazing veterinary resources, most of our animals live long and happy lives into an old age. However, that doesn’t make it any easier when it is time for them to go.
Any good stories you can share with us?
I think one of my fondest memories from my time here so far was an interaction I had with Solaris, the Bornean Orangutan. Orangutans are very intelligent and know individual keepers and have a different relationship with each of us. Once, when Solaris was outside on exhibit, there was a huge crowd of people at the orangutan viewing window. I passed by and Solaris caught my eye. I went up to the window and put my hand on the glass. He ran right up and put his hand exactly on the same spot on the opposite side. This showed me not only how smart they are, but that we were friends!