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One day, I want to work at a zoo

Almost everyone loves zoo animals. But what does it really mean to work at a zoo? What kind of education do you need?

Utica Zoo educators Kathleen Mallory and Cory McKinstry shared a message of science, career choices, education, fun—and animals when they visited Barringer Road Elementary first graders on Friday, Oct. 31.

They began their program by explaining five basic rules for dealing with animals:

  1. Be quiet. Loud or sudden noises can startle and frighten animals.
  2. Use two fingers to touch an animal. A whole hand can appear aggressive.
  3. Be gentle. Many animals can become frightened or be harmed by rough handling.
  4. Never in the face. Hands and fingers near an animal’s face may frighten the animal and invite a bite.
  5. Wash your hands when finished. Animals can be dirty or carry diseases or parasites.

The two then launched into the most anticipated part of the presentation—the animals. While Mr. McKinstry held each animal, Ms. Mallory asked students questions and shared information about the animal’s habitat, behavior and any special characteristics. This day, they brought:

Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula—This South American native lives in the desert and scrub areas, feeding on insects and worms. It lives in burrows and comes out in the evening and at night. Although its bite is mildly toxic (similar to a bee sting), its main defense is its ability to throw off stiff, spine-line hairs that irritate would-be attackers.

African Pygmy Hedgehog—A native of African deserts and savannahs, this nocturnal mammal uses its snout to burrow into the ground for safety and to find food. It eats insects and occasional small reptiles, amphibians, eggs, birds and mammals. It protects itself by rolling into a ball leaving only its very sharp spines pointed at predators. (Spines are different from quills. Spines are stiff, sharp hairs. Quills are hollow with barbs on the end that stick in the attacker.)

Opposum—This marsupial (holds it immature babies in a pouch like a kangaroo) lives locally. An opossum is different from a possum, a marsupial that lives in Australia. It is nocturnal and relies on its hearing and smell to find fruits, nuts, seeds, insects, small animals and even carrion (dead animals) to eat. It can hang from its thick fleshy tale. When frightened, it often plays dead.

Burmese Python—This carnivore from Southeast Asia grows to an average of 12 feet long. It hunts the forest at night, crawling along the ground and grabbing animals with its sharp teeth, squeezing them and swallowing them whole. The python’s skin is smooth and leathery.

Becoming a zoo or animal keeper

Ms. Mallory told students that she had attended college and earned a chance to intern (work, sometimes without pay, to gain job experience) at the Utica Zoo.  She did such a good job that she the zoo offered her a full time job.

Students who want to work with animals will need to take lots of science and math in school and in college. Because so many people want to work with animals, it is not uncommon for zoos to have 100 applicants for a single job. By volunteering at a zoo, you can show that you are really interested and that you understand what the job involves.

Working at a zoo is more than just being around magnificent animals. The days are filled with feeding and watering animals, cleaning animal enclosures and other day-to-day tasks.

For Ms. Mallory and Mr. McKinstry, it is the right career.

  • photo of a taratula