Friday, December 18, 2009

Zoo a workplace like few others

I'd guess there must be a lot of people who dream of working at the Calgary Zoo. Imagine cuddling up to a koala bear, feeding the flamingos or even perhaps hosing down a hippo. But there's a lot more to it than looking after the front end of an animal.

Being a zookeeper is indeed a great career, but also hard work with a huge amount of responsibility, and the job can be quite physically demanding.

Michelle Poisson, senior manager human resources, says she currently does have an entry position posted that could mature into zookeeper status -- but the starter job is a zoo labourer.

The applicant will probably have some experience working with animals in either a veterinary clinic, animal shelter or perhaps within our national parks and probably has some animal-related degree, but it could take a lot of on-the-job experience and training and waiting for a senior position to come open before a person is able to specialize in a particular area and be promoted to a keeper's role,

Zookeepers -- like the zoo's groundskeepers -- are City of Calgary staff, and tend to stay in their jobs for a long time. There are few other jobs in this city requiring their talents, and they love the job they do working for one of the top zoos in the country.

A good example is keeper Les Stegenga. He has been with the zoo for 21 years working with most animals except elephants, and has been enjoying looking after gorillas exclusively for the past seven.

But there are many other jobs at our zoo where there is no direct contact with animals. It's a big organization with a 160 full-time, year-round staff and another 40 or more permanent part-time staff who work primarily with food and concessions.

In the summer months another 200 to 250 seasonal employees look after the grounds, work in concessions, retail, front gate and guest relations, plus the grounds are seasonally home to about 600 volunteers.

Many of the volunteers return to the zoo every year to assist in a variety of jobs, from directing traffic to taking a tortoise for a walk. Volunteering is a good way to get noticed by senior staff and putting in a good volunteer effort might mean a better chance of obtaining permanent staff status.

Many of the jobs may not be animal-related, but Poisson says the zoo is such an attractive environment and there's always the opportunity to watch the peacock spread its feathers or say good morning to a monkey on the way to pick up a coffee.

Like any large corporation, there are departments involved in IT that look after plasma screens around the zoo and listening stations; finance; human resources; training; sales and marketing and communications; facilities maintenance with a big staff of trades people; and grounds maintenance.

And there are, of course, many employees who are specialists in the veterinary fields, including animal health technicians, conservation research that hires a number of students working on research papers, and education, where knowledgeable staff are responsible for providing year-round interpretive programs.

Conservation has always been at the forefront of the zoo's agendas, both here and in the field.

Two Calgary staffers have been working long-term at the Wechian Hippo Sanctuary in West Africa. The zoo also has a department responsible for raising funds, but money for the conservation fund is largely raised through the ZooFari Eco-Tour Program that takes groups on popular educational/ vacation trips.

Animal and plant education programs also keep


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