Crystal DiMiceli’s love for animals as a small child resulted in the rescue of a stray cat. Today Crystal’s passion for animals and conservation is fulfilled through her work as a zoo keeper at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, New York. In her interview with The Career Cookbook Crystal shared advice on how to become a zoo keeper, explained what makes zoo animals happy, and described where she sees her career headed.
(Editor’s Note: The Career Cookbook was fortunate to receive help in formulating questions for this interview from a middle school in Harlem, New York. We are grateful for their contributions. Those questions are denoted throughout as *student’s question.)
*Student’s Question: What is a zoo keeper?
CD: A zoo keeper is a person who is in charge of taking care of the animals at the zoo. They feed the animals, they clean up after them. They train the animals. They make sure their enclosure is a happy place for them to be basically.
CCB: What does it take to keep the animals happy apart from feeding them?
CD: It’s really important to do what’s called enrichment. That is providing the animal with stimulation that engages their minds and maybe brings out natural behaviors in them. For example, you can spray perfume through certain spots in the exhibit and that may cause the animal to start smelling around the exhibit and then scent marking. It helps to give the animals choice also. You can put something in the exhibit and they can totally ignore it, but they are choosing to ignore it. If nothing else it is something different for them to look at than just four concrete walls.
Something very important is to provide a naturalistic enclosure for them so they can feel as if they are in the wild as much as possible and it allows them to act like they normally would outside of captivity. So, if you have leopards for instance and you have them in a plain enclosure with no “furniture” it’s not really natural for them because leopards like to climb. It would be great for the leopards to have access to logs or really big branches or even shelves for them to get up high in order to make them feel less stressed and more comfortable.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work as a zoo keeper?
CD: I’ve always known I wanted to work with animals in one capacity or another but being a zoo keeper is nothing that I ever really considered because how many people can get that job? Did you ever meet a zoo keeper? (Laughs) I finally realized that I wanted to be a part of wildlife conservation and, in following my path, I found myself here. (Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, New York)
CCB: What is your connection with animals?
CD: Honestly, it might sound cheesy but it was something that I was born with. I was always an animal person. My mom has pictures of me when I was a little, little kid just hugging animals. One of my first pets was a stray cat that I found that I begged to bring home. I have a bleeding heart, maybe? (Laughs) I want to give a voice to those that don’t have one. Who can’t speak for themselves.
CCB: Being a zoo keeper does that mean that you study Zoology?
CD: Not necessarily, my degree is in Environmental Studies. But, for the most part you find that keepers have Science degrees, mainly Biology, or even Natural Resource Conservation. If you want to work in an aquarium, a lot of times the required degree is Psychology. I guess with the higher species such as dolphins and whales it’s helpful (with training them).
(*Editor’s Note: Crystal knows how to train and does not have a Psychology degree.)
CCB: Your undergraduate degree at SUNY ESF (Environmental Science and Forestry) was in Environmental Studies. What were you hoping to do with your degree? Is that where conservation came in to play?
CD: The only thing I really knew was that I wanted to save the world. (Laughs) I didn’t know if I would be doing it through the government like the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) or if I would be working for a non profit. I didn’t know exactly what my path was going to be.
CCB: How does one become a zoo keeper, break into the field?
CD: Well, experience is pretty important. I found out about this private facility (Outragehisss Pets) by where I was living up north (Upstate New York) and I ended up getting a job with them. I was a Wildlife Educator. It was kind of like a private zoo/museum sort of thing. My job was I took care of all the animals. Completely cool, exotic animals. They had programs at this place, kids came there, and you would have eight animals that you would present them with. Or you would take the animals and go to schools or birthday parties even. Through that I acquired a year’s worth of experience. Then I just so happened to meet a keeper that worked at Prospect Park through a friend of mine and serendipitously he was leaving his position. So, I applied to replace him and I got the job.
(*Editors note: Crystal has also worked for an environmental consultant firm and the New York City Parks Department. She has been at the Prospect Park Zoo for four years.)
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a zoo keeper?
CD: Yeah, for the most part. We have our morning meeting. Then first part of the morning you check on all your animals that you are responsible for, for the day. You feed them, you give them any kind of medication they need. You prep the outside exhibit that the public is going to see, make sure it’s nice and clean. After you let them all out, if they are not already out, then you clean up the backup, which a lot of times is where their night holding is. That pretty much takes you up to lunch. If you have time you will do enrichment before lunch, if not you will do it after. If you have any projects you have to do that’s usually done after lunch whether fixing up a new enclosure or fixing something that is broken. It could be anything. When you have free time that’s when you train animals.
CCB: Are there specific animals that you are responsible for?
CD: It’s a small enough zoo where I get to take care of all of them. There are nine keepers on in one day. Each day we are assigned a certain section and that changes. You rotate.
CCB: What kind of animals do you have at Prospect Park Zoo?
CD: At Prospect Park we have sea lions, baboons, kangaroos, otters, red pandas which are really cute. We have a few different kinds of monkeys. We have tamarin monkeys which are really tiny monkeys. The golden lion tamarin monkeys have this puffy head of hair and they look like the just rolled out of bed. (Laughs)
*Student’s Question: Do you have to wear gloves or protective gear when working with the animals?
CD: You do. You have gloves in every station. The stringent part is when you are working with primates you’re required to wear a face mask and a face shield. If you are working with the higher primates like the baboons you have to change in to different clothes. You have to wear scrubs. It looks like you are going to go do some major surgery. (Laughs) And that’s because they are primates and diseases are communicable. Although we are pretty sure all our monkeys are clean, it’s a sterile environment. It’s more so we don’t get them sick.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a zoo keeper?
CD: You have to be a self starter and a team player at the same time. You are working by yourself for most of the day. You have your routine. You are responsible for it. At the same time when you are done with your work you have to be able to help other people. Also if you are not in the same section the next day you want to make sure you did every thing. You didn’t leave any thing undone. And patience is a big one. There are times when you want the animal to do something and they just refuse to. You need to be patient and wait for them to do whatever it is.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming a zoo keeper?
CD: Get experience. Usually you can start volunteering at around fourteen. You can start volunteering at the zoos or volunteer at pet shelters or pet stores, a vet’s office. Get involved with a dog trainer and learn how to train. Then an undergraduate degree, either Science or Psychology field.
CCB: Where can you go to find out about opportunities for work at zoos?
CD: You can go to the zoo’s Web site. There’s also the AZA Web site,
aza.org, which is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. If you go to that Web site you can get postings for the whole United States. That’s probably the best one unless you want someplace specific.
*Student’s Question: Are there people watching the animals in the nighttime?
CCB: There’s not actually. Not at our facility. We have security and they walk through the zoo at night but we don’t have any keepers that are there. If there is an animal emergency people will stay overnight. Like last week we had a problem with one of our horses and we were afraid to leave him so one of the managers stayed all night.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
CD: Animals getting sick and dying, that’s really upsetting. Not having enough money, which is always an issue, and that prohibits us sometimes from buying the best enrichment available or providing the best enclosure available to them. We may not have enough money to give them something bigger or a more naturalistic enclosure. We have to deal with a really tight budget. That’s difficult when you want to see the animal have the best possible care, the best possible life, and sometimes you just need to cut corners.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
CD: Getting to develop relationships with some really cool animals and having a hand in conserving endangered species.
*Student’s Question: Have you come in to any danger with the animals?
CD: Nothing all that dangerous. I have been bit. I have been scratched. The animals that we work with are pretty small. The ones you do have to worry about are the baboons, and we are not allowed to have free contact with them. We interact with them through fencing. But when you have been working with the animals long enough you get to know them and you can tell if they are starting to get cranky or don’t want you around. You just act accordingly. You either leave them alone or you change what you are doing.
*Student’s Question: Do you have a favorite animal to work with?
CD: Small clawed Asian otter.
CCB: What’s special about them?
CD: This one otter in particular (Jen Li) was the first animal I trained. When I first started she didn’t have a mate, he had just died, and they are very social animals. So she became very social with the keepers. It was easy to fall in love with her.
CCB: How does your Masters in Public Administration complement your career goals?
CD: I’ve always wanted to be able to move up the ladder. Since I already have a science background as my undergrad I figured getting some sort of business background would be helpful and Non Profit Management was what I found.
CCB: Do you have any career aspirations?
CD: I would really like to get in to ecotourism because another one of my passions is travel and I want to be able to combine travel and conservation.
CCB: How would you define ecotourism?
CD: Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. It is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.
*You can find out more about what is on offer at the Prospect Park Zoo here: prospectparkzoo.com