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On the job: Jacquelynn Schmalzried, zookeeper and education curator
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On the job: Jacquelynn Schmalzried, zookeeper and education curator

Zookeeper Jacquelynn Schmalzried got to name a pair of female emus at the Washington Park Zoo Thelma and Louise. They let her name a wallaby after Sheldon Cooper from the "Big Bang Theory" television show.

She has a job that many dream of.

"It's a lot of fun," she said.

Schmalzried grew up on a farm and raised animals in the 4-H program as a kid, so she's long had an interest in animals.

"I'd always want to go out into the woods and just find some wildlife and bring it home," she said. "Maybe I wasn't always supposed to. I'd pick up rabbits and bring them home before I was educated on it. I just always had a passion for animals and knew I wanted to work with them."

Her job as a zookeeper and education curator entails checking the zoo animals, checking the perimeters of their enclosures, checking on their well-being and cleaning up after them.

The work can be challenging.

"Zookeepers have many hats," she said. "We all have to be fixing the enclosure one day or painting the enclosure the next. Sickness is a thing that occurs with our animals and it's not something we love. That's why we always check on our animals to make sure they're well taken care of.”

However, the job is rewarding, especially when Schmalzried can see the animals' happiness. She appreciates being able to learn about them and getting to know their personalities.

Schmalzried also enjoys being in a workplace most people visit for fun.

"It's pretty awesome just because we're the behind-the-scenes," she said. "We don't deal too much with the public, but we do in that if they're willing to stop and ask us questions we're willing to educate them. We're basically the caretakers of the animals for everything they possibly need, just seeing them well, seeing their happiness, and seeing those personalities come out in them."

Zookeepers at the Washington Park Zoo get to know the animals really well, she said. Schmalzried sees the animals every single day, other than her days off.

In a smaller zoo, zookeepers get to "swing-keep," meaning they get to work in different areas and familiarize themselves with all of the animals.

As cool as the job seems, it's not easy. In fact, zookeepers share the postal service's "rain or shine, snow or sleet" ethos.

"We're here on the minus 20 degree days," she said. "We're feeding and cleaning them and that. Even if emergency vehicles are out saying the roads aren't clear, we're still coming in because these animals still need us. It may not be everybody's cup of tea but for us it's still part of the job. We still get rewarding things out of it."

An average day involves checking on the animals in the morning to make sure they made it through the night OK, checking on their food, feeding them, scrubbing water pans, raking up their feces, and generally cleaning up. Then zookeepers do enrichment to make sure the animals are happy. They then restock and deep-clean the enclosures, such as by knocking down cobwebs or tree branches. They sweep sidewalks and brush away leaves.

"We always take pride in our zoo and what it looks like," she said. "You gotta be able to work a couple tools, fix things for yourself if you can, and splice a couple hoses together. We don't always have the budget for what we need. Sometimes we get donated things. But you got to try to make the best with what you got."

Schmalzried said she accumulated a lot of stories about bites, kicks and scars. Zookeepers can't get nervous or scared and have to have the feeling that if it's going to happen it's going to happen, she said.

A Laughing Kookaburra from Australia for instance once bit through both the sleeves of her long-sleeve shirt and her sweatshirt.

"I calmly walked down the ladder with her on my arm," she said. "You don't want to cause any more harm to the animal. I got her off eventually, and I had a golf ball-sized cut to my arm."

Zookeepers also have to be closely observant when they welcome new animals. When a new male zebra came in earlier this year, they watched his behavior, his fecal output, and his food intake. The zoo already had a female zebra.

"They were in two enclosures with the fence in-between," she said. "He was running right up to the fence trying to get to her. She didn't care so much about him and was like, 'whatever.' But he actually tried to jump the fence to get to her. At that point we knew it was too dangerous to keep them separate. We got them in the same enclosure even if it meant a little kicking and biting going on. We knew it would be safer than if he tried to jump a fence to get to her."

Anyone who's interested in working with animals at a zoo should volunteer, whether through 4-H or at a local zoo, Schmalzried said.

"Just getting that interaction started and proceeding into study at a college can lead to a job," she said.

How she got the job

Schmalzried said there are many avenues to becoming a zookeeper, but hers involved studying wildlife at Purdue University.

"They don't have a zoological program there, but wildlife taught me quite a bit," she said. "I was very fortunate to have a zoo very close to Purdue so while I was going to Purdue. I was able to get on there as a seasonal and then full-time."

She worked at the Columbian Park Zoo while she was working on her degree and worked there for four years before moving up to Michigan City.

Salary

The salary range for zookeepers was $18,820 to $39,996 per year in September 2014, according to PayScale.com.

Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 15 percent increase in employment for all animal care and service workers through 2022, but the zookeeper profession is projected to grow more slowly than other positions in the field.

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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