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Advice for a new zookeeper

Discussion in 'General Zoo Discussion' started by DragonLady, 11 Apr 2016.

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  1. DragonLady

    DragonLady New Member

    Joined:
    10 Apr 2016
    Posts:
    2
    Location:
    Stevens Point, WI, US
    I need some advice. I'm new to this forum, so forgive me if I'm posting in the wrong space, I created this account just to ask for advice on this topic.

    Back in January, I got hired as an intern at a decent sized, privately owned zoo in Wisconsin. Shortly after I started working, the new zookeeper that had just been hired left leaving a job opening that was then offered to me. I'm finishing my last semester of college, currently driving back and forth between the zoo and school (90 miles) four times a week to finish classes. I've been training as a zookeeper since like the middle or late January and I want to know if the experience I've had at this zoo is typical for other zoos or not because I don't have any prior experience at other zoos.

    The zoo is seasonal, so over the winter, keepers get two days off a week and work from 7am to 3:30pm. Over the summer, keepers get a day and a half off a week and work from 7am to 4:30pm until the zoo opens at the end of April when there are three shifts: 5:30am to 3:30pm, 7am to 4:30pm, 8am to 5:30pm. We've started spring cleaning our exhibits and public spaces and the owners of the zoo seek absolute perfection in cleaning, scrubbing every speck of fly poop off of surfaces or we have to redo the whole cleaning.

    I understand that zoo work requires speed, but I want to know if other keepers are dealing with the same standards I'm faced with here because I can't seem to keep up with my coworkers and it's making me wonder if I'm cut out for this work or if this just isn't the right zoo for me. For example, we're expected to clean out (including raking poop out of large yards outdoors), feed and water the zebras, elands, camel and llamas, mouflans, emus, and six big cats in about an hour and a half.

    I've become very distressed, between juggling work and school while also trying to find a place to live and finance my move and feeling like I'm not progressing fast enough or doing well enough here. I want to know what the experience is like at other zoos, if it's similar, how other keepers felt just starting out and if they went through the same thing. I want to tough it out at least until after school is over because it'll be a different situation then but I'm really wondering if this is the right career path for me.
     
  2. WildlifeGirl89

    WildlifeGirl89 Member

    Joined:
    7 Oct 2012
    Posts:
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    Location:
    Melbourne, Victoria
    Hi DragonLady,

    I can assure you this is not typical of all zoos. My first zookeeping job was the best job I've ever had and it taught me so much about the zoo world. It was at my local wildlife park. I was based in the nocturnal house, working with 2 other keepers. We started at 7:30am each day, general animal checks and enclosure spot-cleans to be done by the time the park opens at 8:30am. Morning feeds to be prepared and fed out by 10am. Morning tea at 10:30am. At least three exhibits must be changed around (different plants, new logs, etc) by the end of the day. Lunch at 12. Animal presentation at 1pm. Go to the kitchen to prepare afternoon feeds, feed the animals at the vet centre, go back to the nocturnal house and feed animals before 4:00pm. Write daily reports. Go home at 4:30pm.

    So please don't let this zoo deter you from this wonderful career.
     
  3. HorseChild

    HorseChild Active Member

    Joined:
    3 Nov 2015
    Posts:
    35
    Location:
    USA
    I went through the same thing at my first full-time zoo job, wondering if I wasn't cut out to be a keeper because I couldn't keep up with my coworkers. I switched to a different zoo two years ago, and it was completely different. I can keep up, and I'm faster than some of my other coworkers. I just recently switched to a new area at the same zoo, and I'm slower at cleaning than the keepers there, but I know I will get faster the more I do it.

    Not all zoos are the same. Don't let one bad experience deter you from being a keeper; I almost did, and if I had, I would have missed out on so much at my next job!
     
  4. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    9 Dec 2015
    Posts:
    280
    Location:
    England
    A few thoughts:

    1) Its perfectly normal to be slower at the start because:
    a) You won't have the muscle built up in the most used areas of your body to perform the work. That's a simple basic fact that you just have to "grow" into the task. Sometimes if you have free time you can work-out at a gym or with a work-out program to help build up your strength and endurance; but just daily work at the zoo in your job will do a lot.

    b) Being newer to somewhere means that you will lose a lot of time asking questions; finding things; remembering where something is; getting told what your next task is etc... These things can eat up a surprising amount of time and can mean that you feel you're not progressing as fast as everyone else is. This is another thing that comes with time. It also tends to improve as you gain more experience as you will know what should be done and thus only have to learn the little quirks of the site you're working on.

    3) High workload and short time spans can often mean that not everyone works to a high standard of work in each task. You might well be being very high standard and thus you are trying to do more work than your co-workers in the same timespan which is already tight. Talk to your workmates and observe or work with them to see how their standards are.
    a) A typical trick in situations like this is that people do a fast job on several areas and then a high quality one on another one or two. They then change which site (in this case pen/enclosure) they do the high quality job on day to day - thus allowing them to cover each site well over a period of time; but without doing each area to a high standard each day.
    It's not ideal but it is a work around many use when the time scale isn't going to fit the work.

    4) Keep your phone in your pocket or your locker. This isn't just to do with phones; but in general just keep alert and focused on your work and be keen and be seen to be keen. Mindset and attitude goes a LONG way and little things like not having your phone out and texting/checking things are big ways to showing that mindset.
    Ps - get a watch to check the time - even just checking time is a big ordeal on a phone and looks more lazy than a quick watch glance.

    Attitude makes a huge difference; but you must be seen to have it not just have it. It makes a big difference when working too as those who always have their phones out or are chatting whilst not working or just watching etc.... are often those who are identified as lazy.

    5) Consider scaling back your work days; your zoo should be appreciative of your workload at school and life and sometimes you just have to scale things back so that you can do each area of your life well and not have to worry about it. It can be surprising but having a lot on your mind and worry will slow your work rate without you realising it. Other people can compartmentalize their mind so that when they are doing one thing that is the only thing on their mind; however they still have to keep an eye on how much they are doing all at once; since even if its not filling your mind its still taking its toll on your body.

    Heck even driving for 90 mins is a toll on your mind and body ; do that both ways and add in your work hours and its quite a significant period of mental and physical strain.




    I would say keep at it as much as you can ;scale back your work hours to ensure that your home and school are well taken care of and keep a good attitude and mindset whilst at work. In the end this zoo might not be the one for you; but it might well be the reference and contacts that get you into the one you want to be in.
     
  5. DragonLady

    DragonLady New Member

    Joined:
    10 Apr 2016
    Posts:
    2
    Location:
    Stevens Point, WI, US
    Thanks everyone for the kind replies, it's been very helpful to me.

    I realized part of why I've been feeling very discourage here is the lack of people management skills showcased by the current staff. For example, just recently, I'd been doing one the morning routine I'd been assigned that week and I completed the longest part of the routine significantly faster than I had the previous time I'd done it. I was still about 30mins+ over how long I'm -supposed- to be taking on that task, but the fact that I'd shown improvement made me feel better.

    Maybe half an hour later, the head zookeeper asked me if anything had happened that had taken me so long finishing that part of the routine. My coworkers told me a couple months ago not to get discouraged, but it's very difficult when you rarely receive any encouragement. Yes, criticism is very important, but so is reminding people that they're showing improvement and doing a good job.

    In regard to the previous post, we're not even allowed to have our phones with us while we're working, only checking them at lunch time, and I only work four days a week since I still have classes two days out of the week and other responsibilities to take care of. I recognize the strain I'm experiencing with finishing school and driving on top of zoo work, but I'm not sure my coworkers do. A few months ago, the head zookeeper asked me while training me if I thought I'd be more or less stressed with work after school ended. She's been out of school for ten years now and I think she might be a tad out of touch.

    She also explained how, since one of the morning routines is new, she's done it about as many times as I have, I should really be faster at it by now. But really that's not fair to me OR her, as she's been doing zoo work for ten years and I have very little experience. You can't expect a learning piano player to pick up a new piece as quickly as an experienced one.

    I'm feeling very much like my coworkers aren't fully understanding my current situation and are expecting more out of me than is fair, and I'm hoping I can stick this zoo out long enough to gain enough experience to move somewhere better.
     
  6. overread

    overread Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    9 Dec 2015
    Posts:
    280
    Location:
    England
    It's important to realise that some people/workplaces are used to students and some are not. Similarly even though that are used to students/learners do not have to have the best or the most aware of staff in charge.

    I would say consider requesting a day or so back so that you can lower your work stress and focus on finishing your studies. Work experience is important, but if it harms your schooling then its not helping you in the long run and they should be appreciative of your other commitments at this point in time as you are not fulltime staff for them.

    You might also ask if you can shadow/work with the head keeper or other staff member; air your concerns that you feel its not the workload but the pace and method and that perhaps seeing and working with them will give you a better understanding of the whole process and help you speed up your work rate.

    Half an hour is a big difference, however there is every chance that you could be doing it to a higher standard; using inefficient methods without realising; taking longer to "find things" that get "moved" or put in places that you don't expect; that you're just warming up to the work etc...


    And just sometimes people remember that a job took less time than they thought it would; you do get people who can organise, but often vastly under-estimate what can get done within a certain time frame even if they've been doing that work for years. Thus tending to mean that they and everyone under them is working at a really fast work speed to try and meet unrealistic targets.