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One of my earliest memories is of visiting the zoo with my grandparents and riding the train in Brackenridge Park when I was about three years old. Those visits helped spark a lifetime love and passion for wildlife. Now, nearly 30 years later, I am proud to be an animal care specialist at the San Antonio Zoo. In other words, I’m a zookeeper. I help take care of 65 animals representing 30 different species in our mammals department.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved all kinds of animals. Growing up, I would terrify my mother by bringing home an assortment of critters — bugs, snakes, toads… I would beg my parents for all sorts of pets; given my way, our house would have become a veritable menagerie.

Once old enough, I volunteered with animal shelters and considered myself to be the neighborhood pet-sitter. All of these experiences led me to want to work with animals, cycling through all possible animal-related professions. I attended Texas A&M University for a degree in wildlife and fisheries science, with a focus in animal behavior. I also participated in several internships, gaining experience and skills that would eventually come in handy in an animal career.

I began my career at the San Antonio Zoo in 2014 as an intern. After my internship and several other positions at the zoo and other facilities, I was hired as a full-time animal care specialist. Most zookeepers will tell you they can remember the day they got a call and were offered their first official animal position; to this day, it is a memory I hold dear. I feel very blessed to have a job and a career that I am passionate about.

Being an animal care specialist encompasses many different jobs and titles: trainer, janitor, nutritionist, builder, and plumber, just to name a few. My day starts early. I get to work by 7 a.m. to check on the animals and prepare their diets. Then I take care of the animals’ daily husbandry, cleaning out their habitats and setting out food and enrichment.

For me and the other animal care specialists, the daily goal is to provide the highest quality care for our animals. We want to keep them physically and mentally stimulated so they thrive. Much of our day is dedicated to coming up with different ways to encourage the animals to interact with their habitat and enrichment.

We train with many of our animals, teaching them behaviors that help us take care of them. Animals like our hippos, carnivores, and primates are learning things that allow them to participate in their own health care. Participating in these training sessions and spending time with individual animals is one of my favorite parts of the day.

I also help with veterinary procedures, keep records of our animals and their behavior, interact with zoo guests, and spend time on additional projects like exhibit renovations. It makes for a full workday.

I think to myself all the time, I have the coolest job ever. Some days, I can take for granted the fact that I am actually feeding a hippo or training a lemur. It really is such a privilege to be a part of these animals’ lives.

Katelyn Rode, an animal care specialist for the San Antonio Zoo interacts with lemurs and feeds them treats.
Katelyn Rode, an animal care specialist for the San Antonio Zoo, works with lemurs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The job comes with many challenges, however. Weather permitting, the San Antonio Zoo is open 365 days a year; and even when the zoo is closed, the animals need care. Keepers work weekends and odd hours, often spending holidays and weekends away from family. We work in all weather conditions. Here in San Antonio, I’ve run the weather gamut at work, from 112-degree heat in summer to February’s freeze when several animal and maintenance staff camped out and stayed several nights at the zoo.

When animals pass away. It is one of the most difficult and challenging, yet inevitable, parts of this job. Keepers spend so much time building relationships with each animal we take care of, and these relationships come to mean a lot to us. However, as much as we might wish that animals lived forever, sometimes we have to say goodbye.

One of the most difficult things I have done in my career so far is assisting with a necropsy (animal autopsy) of an animal with which I had a strong bond. Luckily, those days are rare and, as difficult as they are, they are opportunities for us to further learn about a species.

On the brighter side of that coin, we also get to witness births; seeing baby animals learn and grow is such a gratifying part of my job. One of the most rewarding things, though, is getting to interact with zoo guests, especially kids, and see how excited they are about wildlife. Witnessing that spark of joy when a child sees an animal for the first time or when they learn a new animal fact can be the highlight of my week.

I hope I can continue to work with animals forever; I will never feel like I’ve learned enough from them or for them. I want to continue learning to provide the best possible care for our animals and hope to mentor new animal professionals. When we can collaborate and learn from each other, our animals benefit. I want to inspire the public to continue learning about, be passionate about, and act for wildlife. Everyone that we talk to can make an impact, like spreading ripples in a pond. And with enough ripples, all of us can make a big difference in protecting wildlife and the places they live. So, I invite you to come out and visit the zoo and learn something new about our amazing animals. And if you ask me about them, it’ll make my day.

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Katelyn Rode

Katelyn Rode is an animal care specialist at the San Antonio Zoo.