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Ahead of National Zookeeper Week, 2 Brookfield Zoo staffers talk about the work

Video by Ashlee Rezin | Two animal care specialists at Brookfield Zoo sit down with the Chicago Sun-Times to describe their jobs

As National Zookeeper Week is set to kick off on July 15, two employees at Brookfield Zoo recently sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times to describe their jobs as the first line of defense for wild animals held in zoos.

“You get to see [the animals] every single day in your job, you get to observe them, and take care of them, and be around them, and that in and of itself is amazing,” said Dara Kelly, 43, a senior animal care specialist — or zookeeper — for the Chicago Zoological Society for six years.

The zookeepers at Brookfield Zoo are responsible for the overall care of the animals in their habitats, including feeding, cleaning their spaces, husbandry, health care and more, including working with nutritionists. The zoo, at 8400 W. 31st St. in Brookfield, sees about 2.2 million visitors every year, housing more than 3,000 animals representing 507 species and 133 animal care specialists, who are members of the Teamsters Union Local 727 and earn between $46,030 and $61,422 a year.

Kelly, who lives in Berwyn, specializes in the Mammal Department, which includes 10 Mexican wolves, five mongoose, four giraffes, four African painted dogs and one klipspringer. She is also a relief animal care specialist (she fills in when someone takes a sick day, etc.) for six bison, four Przewalski’s horses, three black rhinoceros and two camels.

The morning of June 27, Kelly fed and weighed the mongoose, one of whom is geriatric; cleaned the yard for the painted dogs and placed enrichment in their habitat, which was wood wool with dill and coriander sprinkled over it so dogs can scent-mark, roll and play; observed the wolves; and cleaned and put hay in the giraffes’ yard.

“What don’t I get out of this?” she said, adding that she works eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, and has a degree from Santa Fe College’s Zoo Animal Technology Program in Florida.

“It’s kind of like, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It might sound kind of corny, but it’s like a calling.”

In 2007, Congress established that the third Sunday of every July would start National Zookeeper Week to recongize the “contributions zookeepers make to the care and conservation of captive exotic animals and to research, public education, and recreation,” according to the American Association of Zookeepers.

Nava Greenblatt, lead animal care specialist for the zoo’s Tropic World Asia, started out her day with a training session with one of six orangutans in her care, 37-year-old Sophia, whose 1-year-old daughter Heidi sat clinging to her mother’s arms and torso.

“The animals voluntarily cooperate in their training sessions, which allow us to provide even better care to them,” she said. “We can ask them to show us body parts we might not be able to see easily. We brush their teeth, we file their nails, and [the orangutans] are all trained to accept an injection.”

Sophia was rewarded with peanuts during the training session, during which Greenblatt chatted with the apes, saying things like, “Good girl!” and “Nice job!” and referring to Heidi as “little one” or “munchkin.”

She also set up the orangutan habitat with challenging enrichments, such as placing peanut butter high up on a wall, so the apes are forced to problem-solve a way to get to it; fed two pygmy loris; and set up the pygmy loris habitat. She is also responsible for four Asian small-clawed otters, three white-cheeked gibbons and three white-bellied pangolins.

“I really love my job,” said Greenblatt, who asked that her age not be provided, lives in the southwest suburbs and has a degree in biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s always different, I love caring for animals, they’re always doing surprising things. Even though I’ve been here for 31 years, every day is a new adventure and I wouldn’t want to do any other job.”

Greenblatt added that the hours and unpredictability can be difficult, saying that being a zookeeper is not the type of job you leave at work. The animal care specialists also regularly engage zoo-goers in “Zoo Chats,” in an effort to get out the zoo’s mission and educate about conservation.

“But, the first time I came to Brookfield Zoo, I said, ‘I would even pick up garbage at this place.'”