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A Day in the Life of a Gorilla Keeper, Part 2

09/25/2015

So last week, I explained that although we have a fairly standard daily routine, we find that many days are anything but normal. The fact that we work with a living collection means that every day is different, and we never really know what to expect. On any given day, we could have an animal that becomes sick or injured and have to tend to him or her. Every time we come to work, we really have no idea what the day has in store for us.

Every week, I develop a schedule to outline where the gorillas will go each day. It’s glorious when all of the gorillas cooperate and do what we ask, but often they have their own opinion of what they want to do instead! In those cases, we have to change gears and rethink our plans for the day. Because of the fact that we have three groups of gorillas, if one of them decides not to shift, it usually blocks the way for another animal to get by. Times like these make me feel like I’m working on a giant Rubik’s Cube, trying to get all of the pieces to fall into place!  

Another issue we face is facilities challenges. Sometimes a door breaks, for example, or something in an exhibit might become unsafe to allow animals in it (a downed tree branch in the yard, for example).  Having shift doors break on you is the bane of every zoo keeper’s existence! Some doors are more important than others, but if it’s an important one, it means we have to keep animals off exhibit while we repair it, and just like when someone decides not to shift, this creates a jam since we can’t get the gorillas past the broken door.

We also regularly re-perch our dayrooms as enrichment for the animals.  Perching is when we move and string fire hose and new exhibit furniture around the ape exhibits (or vines and tree branches in the smaller monkey exhibits). This means that again, we must keep animals off exhibit. We must maintain our off-exhibit spaces too, so often we are working on things like perching projects behind the scenes, on top of our regular work load. Even if it’s not the gorilla area that is being worked on, I’ll rush through my own area to help out with whatever project we have in our building. We are a team, so we help each other out and cover for each other on a difficult day.

As you’ve probably gathered with the openings of all of the trail systems recently, we’ve been under construction quite a bit lately. The nature of the zoo construction industry is such that often times we’ll get late notice that a specific project is about to begin. So it’s a last minute scramble to get a new area perched and ready to accept whichever animals are being displaced by the construction. 

On top of the unexpected animal changes and facilities problems, we face the same challenges as any other workplace, like staff call-outs and meetings. Our building has four areas, which means that to be fully staffed, we need four keepers. If there are call-outs—even if not in our building—people get moved around to cover for open areas, and often we end up short-staffed. This means that on top of our daily routine, we now have to split up an area among the remaining three keepers. We do the best we can, but sometimes it means that a group of animals may be delayed in getting on exhibit—so bear with us! We also have regular team meetings, general staff meetings, and meetings to talk about all of the construction that has been going on lately. Those days prove to be challenging because even without them, we have a pretty full day's worth of work!

I hope this gives you an idea of what it’s like to work in such a dynamic field. It’s definitely something that I enjoy. I never get bored, that’s for sure! But it can also be very stressful as well, especially because often it does mean that we have to rush to try and get animals on exhibit for our visitors.  Know that we always try our best, but sometimes the animals have other ideas.  

Kristen Farley-RamboBy Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper