Today is the last day of Zoo Keeper Appreciation Week—Have you hugged a zoo keeper today? Today’s superstar zoo keeper is Josh Young. Josh works with our carnivores—the meat-eaters—which include all of our cats (tiger, lion, cheetah, leopard, and many others), bears (grizzly and Andean), and canids (maned wolf, African wild dog, and even a domestic dog: Anatolian shepherd dog). Zoo volunteer Dale Martin talks with Josh about his experience as a zoo keeper at the Houston Zoo.
Carnivore Zoo keeper Josh Young talks to Camp Zoofari kids about Malayan Tigers at the Tiger Training Window. As a youngster, Josh attended Camp Zoofari where he became interested in becoming a zookeeper.
How long have you been here at the Houston Zoo and how did you become a zookeeper?
I’ve been here over eleven years now. When I was younger, I attended a very primitive form of our current Camp Zoofari – at the time, it was a 1-day workshop focusing on a specific topic. I saw teens working alongside the teachers and later found that they were members of Zoo Crew. They got to volunteer at the Zoo!! I applied the next summer and was accepted as a volunteer into the Large Mammal Department. I volunteered there for 4 years. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with some awesome animals…and people. It was a profession that I knew I would love, so I applied for a job opening and was hired on in the Hoofed Stock Department.
What course of study did you pursue to prepare you to become a zookeeper?
I received my Bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in Philosophy & Art History. One thing that I learned is that no particular course of study, animal related or not, could have prepared me for everything in zoo keeping. Of course, it helps to have basic knowledge of animals & common sense—but we are all jacks-of-all-trades, and the majority of what we do is something that we just learn as we go along. One can read everything written about a particular species, but each individual animal is different in personality – predictable situations can easily change when working any living creature. I’ve seen many of our animals act contrary to what the textbooks say.
What is your favorite part of being a zoo keeper?
It’s not an office job! I get to work outdoors with incredible animals and a great bunch people. It’s such a unique profession.
What is your biggest challenge being a zoo keeper at Houston Zoo?
Houston summers!!! I have lived here my entire life but the heat drains the energy right out of me. The animals dread the summer, too. The job becomes twice as challenging when the animals are not motivated to do anything.
What is your daily routine like?
The Carnivore Team meets at 7:00am every day in a morning meeting where we discuss important issues and the day’s upcoming events. After the meeting, we report to our assigned area/animals. We check on and do head-counts of all of our animals. Then, it’s feeding animals, cleaning exhibits, training husbandry behaviors, administering any medications to animals undergoing veterinary treatment, enriching animals, and working on special department projects. Sometimes, it can be downright hectic!
What is your most rewarding aspect of the job?
Knowing that I help take care of animals that people love to come and see and learn about. We spend so much time with our animals that they are our extended family. These animals depend on us.
What animals have you worked with in the past and are working with currently?
I began working at the zoo in the Large Mammals (hoofed stock) Department which, at the time, had white rhinos, giraffe, pygmy hippos, tapirs, and numerous antelope species. After about 2 years, I transferred to the Carnivore Department. We have tigers, lions, bears, maned wolves, cheetahs, a number of other cat species, African wild dogs, and one domestic dog—an Anatolian shepherd dog.
Do you have any favorite animals that you either worked with or just in general?
My favorite is Celesto, our 22-year-old female African lion. She was the most ornery animal I had ever met when I first started. For several years, I took time every day to spend time with her and earning her trust – now we work great together. She has an extremely bold personality that I love.
What is your funniest/most outrageous experience/story as a zookeeper?
A few years ago, Carnivore Supervisor Kevin Hodge and I were assigned the task of driving to Baton Rouge (LA) Zoo to pick up and transport our new maned wolf to her new home here at Houston Zoo. We left Houston about 4:00am in a small van and picked Lucy up in Baton Rouge later that day. On our return to Houston—with Lucy in a kennel in the back seat, Kevin & I realized that neither of us had eaten all day. We stopped for a quick meal break at a Taco Bell just outside of Baton Rouge. With a maned wolf in the back seat, we knew that one of us would have to wait in the car with Lucy while the other went in to get food. On entering the restaurant, everyone stared at me with a slight look of disgust. I then realized that I smelled heavily of maned wolf—maned wolves exude an odor that smells like skunk. Nobody inside Taco Bell would stand anywhere near me!! I quickly got our food and returned to the van. The final scene still makes me laugh: Kevin & I, smelling like skunk, eating fast food in a van in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin, with a maned wolf in the back seat….that had to be a first!!