Recently, we interviewed
Mr. Billy Keen. He is the head zookeeper at the Elmwood Park Zoo
in Norristown, PA..
We had a great time discussing his background, his job, the animals, and
changes at the Elmwood Park Zoo. We could really tell from the way
he talked that he loved animals and enjoyed what he does.
links below organize his answers in topics.
long have you been at the Elmwood Park Zoo?
It will be 2 years in July 2001.
did you become interested in animals?
The interest in animals has always been there. It started in Scouts. I
ran nature centers at Scout camps. When I was older I worked in a pet
store. From age 14 on I got paid for working with animals.
kinds of training did you go through? What school did you go to?
A zookeeper needs a 4-year degree in a biology-related field. It is not
necessary to attend zookeeper training school. I went to zookeeper
school in Florida at the Marion Nature Park in conjunction with the
Central Florida Community College. I worked in the zoo during the day
and did classroom work at night. It was a 3-semester course that gave
plenty of hands-on experience with animals. Most zoos like to hire
people that have a degree in a biology-related field and have animal
experience. The more kinds of experience you have the better, especially
with exotic animals. At the zookeeper school I got experience with
primates and large cats which is hard to get.
you have any interesting experiences or stories that you would like to
share with us?
"I'm loaded with stories. You probably could name an animal and I
would have a story." I can tell you a story about one of my keepers
with a cougar. We had a cougar with cubs. When they have cubs they are
very aware of things around them. Many times we get into a rut doing the
same things day after day. The keeper wasn't paying much attention to
what he was doing. He had gloves in his back pocket. As he turned around
the gloves brushed the cage and the cougar took the gloves and pulled
them into the cage and started to eat them. The keeper tried to give him
rewards so he'd spit the gloves out. He spit the glove out, but kept his
paws on top of it. He ate the treat and continued eating the gloves. The
keeper lost his gloves that way. He learned a valuable lesson.
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many workers are at the zoo?
I have 8 zookeepers with interns. The interns are college students doing
internships to finish their degrees. I have some high school students
doing community work. All of our work can get done during the day; we do
not have a night crew or round the clock care, unless there is an
do you keep the zoo clean?
"Lots of hard work and sweat! It is a daily job." Just taking
care of the animals is a daily job. Someone has to remove the feces and
leftover food. In the bird areas, the waste has to be scrubbed away.
There is repainting of buildings, sweeping walkways, picking up
trash…. keeping the zoo clean is an ongoing task that never ends. The
further into the season the more trash there is.
kinds of things are used to clean the zoo?
Special chemicals are used in certain areas, depending on the animals.
Antibacterial detergent is usually used, but Clorox is used in areas
where animals have bacteria loads in their feces. If an animal is sick,
cleaning methods may change.
you have researchers that study the animals?
You're looking at him. We actually do all the research ourselves when we
bring new animals in or we have a problem. We might talk to other zoos
that have the same animals. It is an ongoing process.
there any special trainers for animals?
We don’t do much training. We allow animals to be more natural, to do
the same things here they would do in the wild. Minimal training takes
place so the animals can find the area where their food will be places.
There is also a reward given when the animals come to the fence, this is
so keepers can get a close look at them.
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is your favorite animal?
I really don't have a favorite. I have always been a reptile keeper so
that is where my strong interest is. No one animal stands out.
Where do you get most of your animals?
Most come from other zoos. 90% come from other zoos or private breeding
facilitates that are licensed to breed certain animals. Other than that,
1% come from private donations, but that is very rare. The rest come
from rehab centers. All of our birds of prey come from rehab center.
These are birds that have something wrong with them. They may be missing
a wing or eye or foot. They are unreleasable. We get them from all over
the United States. Our bald eagle came from Alaska.
many animals do you have?
That is hard to answer too. We have many animals in groups. The number
usually surprises people. We have about 320 animals - out of that
number, 65 are
cockroaches alone. Take into account that I have a lot of colonies. In
the insect colonies the numbers can get pretty high. I had a group of
flesh eating beetles. I had bout 200 of those. We have about 80 species
of animals on display. I have some animals that are used for education
that are not on display. Most of my insects are off display now, waiting
for a new display area.
kinds of animals do you have?
About 90% of my animals are North American species. I have a few exotic
animals, things that are not North American that you do not see because
they are educational animals used for educational shows. We try to show
the more unusual North American species that people wouldn’t
recognize. One is the jaguar. People don't think the jaguar is a North
American animal. They think it is from South America. It is, but it does
stretch up into the southern United States. The jaguar is largest cat at
the zoo. It is the Elmwood Zoo's mascot and logo. The ringtail cat is
another unusual animal that we feature. It has a long, slender body. It
too is originally from South America, but is now found naturally from
the Midwest to the southern part of the United States. I brought in 3 of
those last year.
you tell us the classifications of animals that you have?
I have a little bit of everything: insects, mammals, birds, reptiles,
and fish, which are just goldfish.
do you feed the different animals and how much?
That is a hard question, it depends on what the animal is. Most of our
animals are omnivores or carnivores. We don't have many strict
vegetarians. Most of our birds of prey are fed primarily chicks and rats
once a week. Carnivores are fed 6 days a week, one day a week they are
fasted. The fast day is to give the animal a more a natural behavior. In
the wild animals don't eat every day. A cougar is like a house cat, if
it is fed every day, it does nothing but sleep. The fasting day makes
them get up and search for food. It gives them exercise and makes them
use their senses. Our cats get a prepared meal called Bravo. It is
regular ground meat, organs and bones all ground up together. It is has
the consistency of hamburger. The omnivores get vegetables with a little
Bravo added. The insect eaters get live crickets, mealworms, and
earthworms. Everything else is fed frozen food that is thawed out.
Except for the insects, we do not use live food. Live food causes
problems. The "food" may attack or get away from the eater.
The thawed out food is placed in the areas, sometimes hidden so animals
like snakes find it and eat it. It is healthier to use frozen animals
because the freezing kills any parasites the animal may have.
medical care do the animals need?
That depends on the animal. The cats get normal vaccinations, just like
house cats. Normally we use a dart gun, not to knock the animal out, but
to give the vaccination. We load the vaccine into the dart and
"dart" the animal. Certain animals are knocked out for general
physicals, especially older animals. Smaller animals are netted and
physicals and vaccines are given. If an animal is sick and needs
medicine, it can be put in with the food. Zookeepers are always watching
the animals for anything that could be wrong from cuts to behavior that
is not usual. We had a fisher that had to have teeth extracted. The
keeper noticed that it was not eating and we found that it had a tooth
abscess. 90% of the medical part is noticing changes in animal behavior.
do you do with baby animals?
A lot of the animals we have, we do breed. The rest are neutered or
spayed. Sometimes we keep babies here or we give or loan them to other
zoos. When we breed animals, we must want them or other zoos must want
them. We do not allow animals to have unnecessary babies. Babies, as
well as new animals, are put in our quarantine area. This is to make
sure nothing is wrong with them. Animals spend 30 days in quarantine. If
the animal has something wrong with it, it will run its course in 30
days or will show up. This quarantine also allows new animals to adjust
and calm down.
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do you make individual animal habitats?
It depends on if it is for a new animal or and existing animal. We
usually don’t build a new habitat for an existing animal unless the
area is coming down or not the proper size. Most of what we've done is
to improve the areas for the animal's well being. We put in more
branches for perching, given them more sheltered areas to stimulate more
natural behavior. When it comes to bringing in a new animal, it is a
little bit different. We sit down and make a well thought out plan,
trying to think of every aspect. If it's a large exhibit, we have to
contract it out to a company that will come in and build it. If it's a
low budget thing, we'll do it ourselves. We keep every aspect of the
animal's behavior in mind when we design. Once we have a plan we think
of everything we need in there, even things like perch height or where
to place the shelter. We don't want to overcrowd the exhibit so that we
can't walk through or clean. We also need it to be viewable by the
public. You can't put so much in for the animal that it blocks the view.
We take all that into account, it is a long drawn out process whenever we do
a new exhibit.
you got an animal without any warning, could you build a habitat in the
time the animal is in quarantine?
Nine times out of ten, no animal comes without warning. If another zoo
is having a problem and is looking for a place to house animals we might
get an animal with little notice. I won't bring in anything unless I
have a place for it. I don't like bringing things in that people leave.
I don’t know what that animal may have. That's why we don't allow pets
to come to the zoo. You can't walk your dog in the zoo because your dog
could carry parasites.
There's a lot of research that goes with bringing an animal in.
There is a lot involved. You have to take into account your space. You
may think of a cage that works for the summer, but where will you put it
in the winter? I have alligators that I put outside last year. They do
great outside. They grow bigger. They are back inside for the winter and
are slowly growing bigger. We will have to build a new winter quarters
for them. Natural sunlight is important to a lot of animals,
particularly the reptiles. They definitely need natural sunlight. When
natural sunlight hits them, they become very wild. Indoors they calm
designs the habitats?
You're looking at him. I do most of the exhibits with a team from the
zoo. All the keepers sit down and the director helps out. We have a
consulting veterinarian who helps too. We try to get everyone's input as
best as possible. We figure out what we'd like and then go to our
maintenance guy who does most of our building. He can give us more
suggestions and tells us what will work and will not work from a
construction standpoint. It is a group effort with the initial ideas
coming from the zookeepers.
do seasons effect the animal's habitats?
The biggest thing that effects us is snow. Summer isn't bad; drought
will bother the plants. Snow weighs heavy on the roofs of our buildings.
One collapses under the weight of the snow. Winter is the hardest on
exhibits, snow, freezing and thawing cause things to crack.
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you tell us about the zoo's history?
The zoo is 76 years old. It is owned by the borough of Norristown and is
now supported by a board of supervisors. There is a society that helps
fund the zoo. Originally the zoo only had animals native to
Pennsylvania. It started with just white-tailed deer. The focus for the
last few years has been animals of North America. In the future we will
group animals according to the areas where they live (i.e. wetlands). We
will call these areas Bios and will feature a wetlands, woodlands, and
grasslands. The diversity of the natural landscape of the zoo's 16 acres
allows us to do this.
an estimate how many people come to the zoo daily?
It varies because of the season. We get 120-150 thousand people per
year. It is hard to give a daily count, that really depends on the
month. Most of our visitors come May-July, during the winter we don't
get many people.
changes could be made to the Elmwood Park Zoo?
The zoo is currently going through changes. There are lots of projects
that we are trying to get done. The zoo is very old; we are updating
parts of the zoo. We are basically giving facelifts wherever we can.
Before we were doing a lot of outdoor exhibits, we are now looking to do
more indoor things. Right now during cold weather there is only one
building for people to go to. We are going to build an educational
center. We are in the process of building a playground that will be
ready in May (2001). It will be a large playground that will encompass
most of the lower zoo. As part of the Bio theme, there are plans to move
the prairie dog exhibit to the grassland area where it would naturally
be. We will also add black footed ferrets to it. We are making exhibits
more interactive. The prairie dog exhibit will have a pop-up tunnel
where kids can climb and pop up right in the middle of the exhibit and
be eye level with the prairie dogs! Anything new that we do, we are
trying to make as interactive and fun as we can and at the same time
allowing people to get educated. The zoo is changing a lot.
there been any recent or big changes?
The biggest thing will be the playground. The equipment just arrived so
it will be done soon. Last year (2000) we added a special event area, which
is a large tent. It will go back up in April. People can rent it out for
parties; I got married underneath the tent. A lot of things you can do
for special events can be done under that. I brought in new animals and
paired animals that hadn't been paired. I spent the past year refining
things because the zoo is starting new changes very quickly. The biggest
project last year, which hopefully will be finished by the end of the
month (March 2001), is our AZA accreditation. AZA stands for American
Association of Zoos and Aquariums. That is THE standard for zoos - that
is what measures a zoo. Every zoo tries to achieve that. The federal
government does not consider you a zoo until you have AZA accreditation.
There are about 3000 zoos in the country. Out of that 3000, only about
180 are AZA accredited.
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Please note: Images used on this page are from both the Elmwood
Park Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo.