Animals need more than a playmate

By Bryan Richardson

Behind every good animal is a good zookeeper, because that keeper does more than people might expect.

Rachel Meek, a keeper in Sunset Zoo’s South America area, deals with animals of many varieties, including flamingos, tortoises and anteaters. She sees misconceptions about her work.

“Being a zookeeper isn’t just playing with the animals, which is what a lot of people think,” Meek said. That, she added, is “actually a minor part of my day.”

She said it also doesn’t solely consist of another stereotype of just cleaning up poop all day. Meek said she has to be a lot of things at different times: maid, maintenance worker, veterinary and landscaper.

Meek said there has to be a passion for somebody to get into the zookeeper field. “It’s a long road of not being paid well before you get a good job,” she said.

Meek survived through the multiple seasonal positions, unpaid internships and new locations due to a love for animals she developed very early in life. “I’ve just always liked animals,” she said. “I’ve had dogs and cats since before I was born.”

Meek’s mother became her biggest supporter in her love of animals. Meek recalls instances of her mom pointing g out animals as they drove and trying to determine animal tracks.

“If it was up to my mom, I would’ve had my own zoo,” Meek said. That zoo would have included “snake, birds and lizards and whatever else I could convince my parents to get.”

Meek decided she wanted to be a zookeeper in college but not before considering becoming a veterinarian. “When I was a kid, the only way they said you could work with animals is being a vet,” she said.

She learned from old jobs that the zoo used to be a place where city workers were sent as punishment. “It was thought to be a horrible place,” she said. “Things have come so much further since then.”

For one, she said, it’s a definite career. To do what she does, Meek said there are keys that should be remembered including avoiding jerky movements and a lot of running.

Meek said she carries a shovel when dealing a dangerous animals like anteaters, although she doesn’t ever want to use it. “Doing any sort of harm to the animals is a last resort,” she said. “I have to feel like I’m going to die.”

Like people, animals have their quirks. Some get intimidated by eye contact while others love the attention. “You kind of have to know your animal,” she said.

Meek said an important aspect of caring for the zoo’s animals is the enrichment exercises. Those include anything that changes up an animal’s daily routine. Examples include changing the way of feeding an animal to mimic their natural habit lifestyle. “It gives them something to do other than sit and stare at the public,” she said.

Meek said her favorite part of the job is the relationships that develop between her and the animals. “It’s a joy to go from having an animal that’s skittish and afraid to having an animal that can stand there calmly as you inspect them,” she said.

Meek said she sees examples of that relationship every time she walks inside an animal area. “If I walk in there with no one else, there’ll be at minimum two or three coming up to me and rubbing on me,” she said.

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