“People think that being a zookeeper is just playing with animals all day long. Actually, it’s caring for them and making their lives meaningful. And getting visitors to connect with them. That’s amazing to do.” – Wendi Mello, Wetlands keeper, Northwest Trek
Wendi Mello arrives at Northwest Trek for the early shift. On this mid-summer morning it’s a fine time to be working outside in a forest, but in winter it’s dark, cold and frequently icy. But for Mello, that’s all part of the job. As one of the keepers in the Forest/Wetlands habitat, she cares for otters, beavers, badgers, fisher, skunk and raccoon – and they don’t ever skip breakfast. It’s one of her first chores, after checking email and notes from the late-shift keepers the night before. She also checks in on any animals in the veterinary clinic.
Then it’s time for cleaning rounds. With each animal safely in their inside dens, Mello hoists herself onto the rock wall and over into the otter habitat. Armed with a pan and scraper, she starts looking for otter poop.
“Keepers take care of every aspect of an animal’s life – physical, mental, health care,” she explains.
Daily poop-scooping may not be glamorous, but it’s absolutely essential for monitoring an animal’s well-being. As Mello scours the yard she’s picking up all sorts of clues about the otters: how much they’re chewing branches, whether they’ve dropped any fur, what’s in the poop (anything from undigested objects to parasites). Finally, she scatters the first enrichment item of the day: Cheerios.
“All animals need new things to challenge and interest them,” says Mello. “We give them several every day. Otters are smart and curious, so we get creative. Animal fur, play or food items, new scents, branches, or just rearranging things in their space.”
Yard clean, Mello climbs back out, bringing the ladder with her and making triple-sure nothing has fallen from a pocket to entice curious otters. She empties the poop scoop, then makes her way around the front to clean the glass windows before park guests arrive.
Then she unlocks a door in the rock wall and heads inside to where two energetic otters are waiting. Inside their den is a green, otter-sized tube – all the keepers work on training behaviors to stimulate animals and help with their care, and this tube is for the otters to hold completely still while they receive vaccinations or give blood samples. Mello unlocks and raises the chute door, and the otters race like quicksilver out into the pool, scrambling up the bank and discovering the Cheerios within seconds.
Mello watches for a few moments, smiling. A family wanders up, and two boys remark loudly on the fishy smell.
“You know what that smell is?” she says gleefully. “It’s otter poop – look!”
“Eww!!” say the boys, fascinated.
“And you know why it smells fishy?” Mello continues, relishing the teaching moment. “Because that’s what otters eat – fish.”
“Ohh!” they exclaim in unison, and press noses to the freshly-cleaned glass.
“One of the most satisfying parts of this job is seeing otters be otters,” says Mello. “What’s even more satisfying is seeing visitors see otters be otters. That helps me deal with any frustrating stuff in life.”
Mello moves on into the fisher habitat, emptying and refilling the water tray, scooping more poop, laying out cedar branches to make a bridge for Minnie the fisher.
“Hi, dude!” she exclaims, spotting an animal visitor – a Western toad, perched on Minnie’s stump.
She cleans out yesterday’s enrichment, a pile of leaves in Minnie’s den.
“She didn’t like this one,” says Mello. “Which is good. I like to challenge the animals. In the wild they’d have to solve problems – if you don’t have the perfect bed you have to make a new one, figure it out. So that’s good for her.”
Behind the scenes, Mello checks on Minnie. All around are enormous pumps and pipes, the filtration system for the otter and beaver pools. Maintaining them is also part of a keeper’s job, as is food prep.
As she heads for the kitchen, Mello’s followed by three curious young visitors.
“You guys want to peek in here?” she asks.
Wide-eyed, the kids traipse into the kitchen, looking around at the neat shelves of boots, caps and food containers. Fellow keepers Miranda Mauck and Trisha Lees arrive for the late shift, and Trisha smiles.
“I had a little boy ask me to make a hamburger once,” she remembers. “I told him all we had was rabbit, fish and mice. He changed his mind.”
Mello makes her way around the rest of the habitats, working swiftly while chatting to visitors about animal behavior and what she’s doing. She’ll also clean and care for the birds: barn owl, snowy owl, turkey vulture, golden eagle. It takes most of the morning.
Lunch in the break room is often followed by a meeting, then it’s training time, with Lees and Mauck working with wiggly otters on the green tube behavior. Other days might see any of the keepers assisting at veterinary procedures, a vital opportunity for them to examine their charges close-up and discuss care with the veterinarian.
Giving the daily Keeper Chat and interacting with guests is also a big part of the job.
Everyone gets the late feed, Mello makes her notes and her day is over at 3:30pm. Lees and Mauck remain.
“It’s busy,” Mello says. “There’s no sitting down. But I like that, and working outside, even in 30 degrees. I just love seeing that connection between people and wildlife, and helping make that happen.”
MEET KEEPERS: Meet all our keepers and learn what they do at Zookeeper Academy, July 20-21.