Katrina McCauley, Zookeeper

Katrina mccauley headshot_small
  • Name Katrina McCauley

  • Education B.S., Zoology, Aquatic Biology Emphasis
  • Target Audience Middle School

Katrina McCauley always knew she wanted to work with animals, but the journey to becoming a Zookeeper wasn't easy. McCauley, armed with the educational background and ability to promote herself, broke into zookeeping and has been building her relationship with Colo, the oldest gorilla in a zoo, ever since. Read more to learn how McCauley spends her days as a Zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo!

What is your job?

imageI am a zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and my job is to provide direct care for the animals in our collection. Basically anything you would do for your animal at home I do for our animals at the zoo. This includes feeding them, cleaning their exhibits and enclosures, giving them enrichment, doing training sessions with them, monitoring their health from day to day, and managing any health issuehe animals may have.

My job also includes educating visitors about the animals in our care, maintaining our exhibits and buildings, and record keeping.

Is the training you do with the animals the same as the training someone would do with a pet dog?

It is similar to the kind of training you would do with your dog, but a lot of the training we do is geared toward things of a medical nature. For example, the primates that I work with are trained to "station", which means to hold their hands up onto a sheet of netting, so that we can work with them without fear of getting grabbed. We also train them to open their mouths, present certain body parts, and take shots in their hips or shoulders so that they can get their annual vaccinations. Our gorillas and bonobos can catch the flu just like you and me, so we give them a flu shot every year. We can also train some primates to brush their teeth, and some of our silverback gorillas are trained to let us do an ultrasound on their chest so that we can monitor their heart health.

Why did you choose this career?

imageI had always loved animals and wanted to go into a career that worked with animals in some way. I think that working in a zoo gives you a chance to make a difference not only in the lives of animals, but in people's lives as well. We communicate with our guests and educate them on what is going on with our animals as well as the animals out in their natural habitats. This is a chance for us to open people's eyes to issues that they may not have known about and give them resources to help animals all over the world. We have a number of conservation projects at our zoo and we discuss how these conservation efforts relate to our animals during our daily keeper talks.

Explain what an average day at work is like for you.

First thing in the morning we have a meeting with our department to figure out what everyone is going to do for the day. Our department covers four different buildings, so we divide the keeper staff between those buildings and make sure we all communicate about where we are and what we have to do. Once we establish where we are going to be, our first priority is to get our eyes on the animals and make sure they are doing well. For those animals that require medication, we give them their medications in the morning as well. Then we move on to cleaning the enclosures they live in, as well as feeding them and giving them their daily enrichment and training. Before we leave for the day we do our record keeping, where we record daily observations and thoughts so we can keep track of what is going on in our area.

What do you mean by daily enrichment?

Enrichment is a semi-new concept in zookeeping (it has developed within the past twenty years or so), and it involves modifying the animals' environment to promote natural behaviors. Some examples of enrichment are geared toward making them work for their food, whether we place the food in a paper bag and put it high on a shelf, or give them something like a piece of plastic with holes poked in it with smashed fruit inside. Our bonobos are very playful, so we will also place things such as plastic balls in their room for them to throw or push around.

What do you like best about your job?

My favorite part of my job is that no day is ever the same. You can go in with a plan for your day, and without fail something happens that makes you change your plan. It definitely keeps you on your toes! I also get to be outside a lot, and I am very active in my job.

When you were a kid, did you like science?

I have always liked science, especially biology and chemistry. I think biology was interesting to me because it showed me how things worked and interacted in their environments. I also really like puzzles, and chemistry is like a big puzzle to me because it is all about putting pieces together to create something different.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to become a zookeeper? Tell us about it.

Getting a career in zookeeping was a gradual process for me. Like I said before, I have always loved animals and I decided that I wanted to work with animals very early. I remember a report I wrote in 2nd grade on the blue whale, and for our family trip that year we went whale watching in Maine. Originally I wanted to be a marine biologist based on my interest in marine life, but after that I gradually found my way here to Columbus and to zookeeping.

Working with primates was also a gradual process for me. I actually wanted to work at the aquarium here at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, but the only job available when I applied was in the Australia and the Islands exhibit. Although my academic background is aquatic, a lot of my practical experience was with mammals and birds, so I ended up getting hired for that job working with small mammals and birds. From there I eventually got transferred to work with primates. It was really my hands-on experience that ultimately led me to that position.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a zookeeper?

The biggest challenge for me was being patient and knowing that I would get there eventually. When I was in the academic process I wanted a job immediately - but it is very competitive in this field because there isn't a lot of turnover in zoos. Zookeeping is a very rewarding career and the jobs usually only open up when people retire or move to another zoo. Since there aren't a lot of full-time jobs available, you end up competing with a lot of people that have a lot of knowledge. You really have to learn how to sell yourself and what you've done.

Zookeepers really love their jobs, and it is a job that you do because you love it. It isn't a great paying job, and it takes a lot of dedication - you are basically on-call 24 hours a day in case of emergency. It takes a certain kind of person, and once that person is hired it takes a lot to get them to leave. Though the hours can be challenging, it is also very rewarding.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? Who was he/she and how did he/she do it?

My parents were always very supportive of anything I wanted to do, and they always told me to find a job that I love since I will have to do it for 30 years. They were the ones that really inspired me to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and to make sure that I really enjoyed what I was doing.

Do you have a particular memory from the field that you would like to tell us about?

The births are always great. I have witnessed the births of okapi calves, bonobos and gorillas. One of our bonobos actually went into labor on my shift, so I got to be there for the entire process.

imageWe also have an older gorilla population here at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. We have 15 total gorillas, 3 of which are considered geriatric (over 40). Our oldest gorilla, Colo, is 55 years old. She is the first gorilla ever born in a zoo, and the oldest gorilla that has ever lived in a zoo. Colo's daughter is also considered geriatric in her early 40's, along with another female in her late 40's. Because our population is older, finding ways to make their lives better is really a challenge for us. It is very rewarding when we have a breakthrough with an idea after a brainstorming session. This job isn't about instant gratification, it is more about long-term rewards. It is always fun to see an idea come to fruition and help the animals.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can get practical experience in your field?

It is always a good idea to get involved with groups. Boy/Girl scout troops do a lot of things to earn different badges here at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Many zoos also have things like junior zookeeper programs for middle school kids. Check out groups or programs like these in your area.

Which high school courses would you recommend to incoming high school students?

I went to a very small high school, so I didn't have the opportunity to take the more specialized courses that are offered at some high schools. You definitely will want to take any biology and chemistry courses that your school offers. My high school offered a wonderful opportunity to take courses at a local college for both high school and college credit, so if your school has a similar program I would definitely recommend it. This allows you to get the basic college courses out of the way early so that you can be more specified in your course of study when in college. I don't use chemistry very much in my job right now, but I did use a lot of chemistry when I was studying aquatics. When you work with aquatic environments you have to make sure the oxygen levels, nitrate levels, etc. are in balance.

There are also two great websites to visit if you are looking for opportunities in zookeeping: www.aazk.org and www.aza.org. Here you can find out if zoos near you offer high school classes at their zoos or allow you to participate in research projects.

Are there exciting things happening in your field that could involve students who will enter the field in 10-15 years?

A lot of animals are very critically endangered in their wild habitats, and we need to figure out how to have sustainable populations in zoos. If certain animals go extinct in the wild, the genetic information for those animals will fall on the shoulders of zoos. We need to also make sure that we maintain genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding as much as possible. We have species survival plans designed to manage the genetic diversity of the animals, and we do that through managed breeding. We may pair genetic matches at different zoos for breeding, or limit the breeding in certain groups.


Zoology from the horse's mouth:

  • The word "zoo" is short for "zoological park."
  • About 1.3 million species have been identified on earth, though some scientists estimate that there are as many as 8.7 million species.
  • imageAnimal care experts at the Columbus Zoo care for more than 9,400 animals representing nearly 680 species from around the globe; 40 of which are endangered and 33 that are threatened animal species.
  • Colo, the oldest gorilla to live in a zoo, is currently 56 years old. Normally gorillas live to be between 30-50 years old in the wild.

Key Terms:

Geriatric: Pertaining to old age, or aged beings

(As adapted from dictionary.com)




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