Unlike grocery stores, doctor’s offices, gas stations, restaurants and many other types of businesses out there, there are only so many zoos and aquariums in the country. Those institutions who go through the rigorous process of becoming AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) accredited are even less. I would almost liken working at these zoos to working for a professional sports club. Jobs are specialized, whether you are like what the team doctor is to the zoo veterinarian, or the coaching staff is to zoo management personnel. I would love to liken the professional athletes to zookeepers, but in truth we are more like the personal trainers and specialized individual coaches of the zoo world. The closest thing to pro athletes we have are the exotic animals we care for.


Just like pro athletic leagues where coaches know one another and have possibly worked for other clubs, many zoo staff, from directors to zookeepers, know one another and have worked at other zoos. Probably half the zookeepers at John Ball Zoo have worked for other zoos, either full time, or as interns or volunteers. Quite a few interns and seasonal zookeepers that have been at John Ball Zoo now work at other zoos throughout the United States, like Potter Park Zoo in Lansing or the Houston Zoo in Texas. Also, just like the athletes themselves, not all animals that are at John Ball Zoo were born there or will finish their life there.

To give you an example, early in April I took a vacation to visit my family and friends on the west coast. I visited 4 zoological parks in one week. First stop was to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. I was able to connect with a zookeeper I had worked with over 15 years ago at the Oregon Zoo. I was also able to give them updates on the male Colobus monkey I now worked with at JBZ that had come from Seattle.

Next stop was Northwest Trek in Eatonville, Washington. I had never been there before, or actually knew anyone who worked there. However, when I came across zookeepers doing their jobs, I would introduce myself and start up conversations. Inevitably, we would have a friend in common; and if I had any questions about how they cared for their animals, they would answer them. Almost like coaches learning drills and sports plays from other coaches. Except in this case there is no competition. We are all trying to give our animals the best care they can possibly receive.

Oregon Zoo in Portland was my next stop. I had interned there in college and worked as a part-time zookeeper for 2 years before I came to John Ball Zoo. Many of my old co-workers remained and I was able to catch up with most of them. Their tigers Mik and Nik (who are extremely well cared for and look amazing by the way!), were actually the same tigers born at John Ball Zoo in 1998 that I got to see as cubs.

Finally, I ended up at the San Francisco Zoo in California. Their keeper staff was interested in finding out how JBZ’s current female howler monkey was doing, as she had been born and come from San Francisco. After that I received a behind the scenes tour of their big cat building. There I was able to reconnect, not with a staff member, but with a snow leopard that we had shipped from JBZ to San Fran just a year or so before for breeding purposes. I had been her primary trainer and one of the people who had cared for her for many years. While the exotic, dangerous animals we care for are not treated like pets, we do become very attached to them. You could say I was more than elated to see that she remembered my voice and gave me a ‘chuff’ (non-threatening noise they make) in greeting.

So anytime you go to another zoo or aquarium, keep in mind that some of the animals you see there originated at John Ball Zoo. We even get visitors to our zoo in Grand Rapids that come specifically to see a favorite animal that had been at another facility.

I apologize ahead of time if the song gets stuck in your head, but it truly is a small world after all where zoos are concerned. 

About Julie Katt

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Julie has been a Zookeeper at John Ball Zoo since 1998.  She received a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources at Oregon State University.  

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