Keeping Up with the Koalas

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

For many people, including me, being able to work with adorable animals like koalas and giraffes is a dream. This week, we met with Senior Zookeeper Katie Tomlinson, and my dream is her reality. Though she currently works primarily with giraffes and Tasmanian devils now, six of the eight and a half years she has been with the San Diego Zoo was spent working with the koalas.

Growing up in San Bernardino, Ms. Tomlinson always visited the San Diego Zoo and knew that she wanted to work with animals from a young age. She completed her 4-year bachelor’s degree in biology, but a huge step was when she took on an internship at the Santa Ana Zoo her senior year of college. There, she worked with primates and continued volunteering even after it was over. Knowing that she’d have to get a job somewhere, Ms. Tomlinson applied to The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California. She got it and was a float keeper where she worked anywhere she’s needed but primarily worked with hoofstock. When a giraffe keeper spot opened up there, she took it and spent two and a half years working with the world’s tallest animal. In addition to being a keeper, she also worked on the Baja Peninsula Pronghorn Project and traveled to the Channel Islands to work with the endemic foxes that reside on the islands. Despite having no experience with marsupials, Ms. Tomlinson then snagged a job working with koalas here at the San Diego Zoo. Six years later, she shifted to working with giraffes and Tasmanian devils though she still works with koalas occasionally.

After meeting Burley, one of the koalas living at the Zoo, we learned that a majority of Ms. Tomlinson’s day isn’t actually spent with the animals but rather with their food, eucalyptus. She works with the plant so much that she can’t really smell it anymore! Her day starts at 6:00 am and ends 2:30 pm. On days where she’s working with the koalas, she might prep and put out the eucalyptus until her lunch. It might seem easy to prepare food for the koalas since they only eat eucalyptus, but it can get hectic and confusing. Each koala will get 3-5 bundles of eucalyptus a day, but each koala will only eat certain kinds. Sometimes the bundles do get mixed up and it can get confusing.

Besides prepping and giving the koalas food, they also do a lot of paperwork, give tours, and animal training. Once a week, the keepers have to weigh all the koalas. However, they have to wait for the koalas to come down and that’s not an easy task. Handling koalas can be difficult as well. Some are easier to handle than others, so keepers will start with them, and once they are comfortable handling the more relaxed individuals, they will move onto other koalas that are more difficult to handle. Being a zookeeper involves a lot of cleaning and it’s very physical with a lot of dirty work. They have to work in all kinds of weather, so it’s not an easy job but it’s extremely rewarding.

For those who want to pursue a career in zoo keeping, Ms. Tomlinson recommends getting a lot of experience through volunteering and interning. It’s great to get a wide variety of experience and it makes you look a lot more appealing to employers. It’s a difficult job to get and can be a lot of dirty work, but Ms. Tomlinson wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Andi, Career Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2017

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