National Geographic Society Newsroom

A Week Dedicated to the Keepers of the Kingdom

For most patrons of zoological parks, an opportunity to meet a zoo keeper far surpasses a chance to meet the zoo director, the zoo curator and even the zoo veterinarian. In fact, “Meet the Keeper” presentations are often touted as being more popular than up close and personal encounters with the zoo animals. Zoo and...

For most patrons of zoological parks, an opportunity to meet a zoo keeper far surpasses a chance to meet the zoo director, the zoo curator and even the zoo veterinarian. In fact, “Meet the Keeper” presentations are often touted as being more popular than up close and personal encounters with the zoo animals.

Zoo and aquarium guests are fascinated by the uniformed wildlife experts responsible for the care of the individual animals that serve as ambassadors for their species at zoological parks around the country.  Many of these keepers are celebrities in their own right with groupies and followings of docents and volunteers that hang on to every word they utter.  I was always impressed that I could walk out of an empty enclosure after cleaning up animal excrement and draw a crowd.  When you think about it, it is quite a feat! But that is not all zoo keepers do by a long shot.

The author as a zoo keeper

Zoo keepers and aquarists have emerged as more than just budding celebrities among wildlife professionals. They play a vital role in the conservation programs set forth by the living institutions that they work for and represent.  Zoo Keepers, many of which have Masters Degrees and some even with PhDs, play an integral role in research, conservation and education.   They are trained in operant conditioning—a fundamental concept in behavioral psychology that is applied to the training and behavioral management of zoo animals.

It is an eclectic and rewarding job.  In one day, for example, a great ape keeper may clean an enclosure, train a gorilla for a blood draw, give a presentation on the field conservation of bonobos, meet with curators to discuss the design of a new orangutan exhibit, and feed the chimpanzees as part of a demonstration on conditioned cooperative feeding in simians.  In addition, they may collect behavioral data regarding some aspect of social behavior in a newly introduced group of apes and publish their research.

Let’s look at a few of my colleagues. Megan Elder, of the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota is the International Orangutan Studbook Keeper for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  She coordinates much of the breeding program for the world’s captive population of orangutans, and tracks the demographics of the population while monitoring its genetic health.

Shane Good, an animal keeper at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, is also the Past President of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), the Past President of the International Congress of Zoo Keepers and an Advisory Council Member for Polar Bears International, the leading non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the iconic bear of the North.

According to the AAZK website “As the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and vanishing habitats has increased, our role as educators and wildlife ambassadors has become essential. During the third week of July each year, celebrate National Zoo Keeper Week; both you and your animals deserve the recognition.”

There are approximately 6,000 animal care professionals in the United States.

To help increase public awareness about the need to preserve our precious habitats and the animals which inhabit them and to recognize the roles that zookeepers play in animal conservation and education, the American Association of Zoo Keepers invites zoos, aquariums, and their guests to participate in National Zoo Keeper Week.

Please join me in thanking Zoo Keepers in North America and worldwide this coming week for all they do for zoo animal welfare and conservation.  Please make an effort to visit your local zoo to support these dedicated professionals as they work to save imperiled species around the globe.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: