May 22, 2007
Bret Sellers, Woodland Park Zoo Collection Manager
While he's researched and written his fair share of scientific papers, conservationist Bret Sellers realized early in his career that he'd have more impact on the biological community—and the endangered animal species he so revered—by working at a zoo. So 25 years ago, he began volunteering at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. By 2001 he'd clawed his way up to the position of collection manager at Woodland Park Zoo, one of the country's premier zoos. There, he oversees many of the large-animal exhibits, managing 74 zookeepers and more than 100 animals, including the great apes, gorillas, giraffes, zebras, elephants, ostriches and, of course, the lions, tigers and bears.
Q: How did you get started in this field?
A: I graduated from Oregon State University with my zoology degree. Then I moved to Portland and started volunteering at the Oregon Zoo. At the time I was doing graduate research—behavioral studies. And I got hired shortly after that. I worked at the Oregon Zoo for 18 1/2 years. After four years there, I was promoted to senior [zoo]keeper, where I stayed for 14 years.
Q: What exactly does a collection manager do?
A: Ninety percent of my job has to do with the day-to-day operations of the zoo, working with the keepers' needs as well as the animals'. Even the mundane things, like scheduling, making sure every area is covered [by staff] and vacation requests are accommodated, on to the interesting stuff where you have to immobilize animals for annual exams, receive animals from other zoos, prep exhibits and ship out animals. Usually it's a day that starts at 7:15-7:30 and goes until 5. There's never a dull moment.
How to tell if you should work with animals:
"If you have a natural, innate ability to read animal behavior and know how to act around them and approach them, that's how you know whether it's right to work with animals. A lot of the animals at the zoo are dangerous, especially if they're scared. You have to be alert. It's really easy to stimulate the hunting response in them, the innate ability to attack."
"You have to be very pragmatic about how you're going to earn a living if want to work in the zoological field. There's not a lot of opportunity. You have to have a plan. I believe at one point they were saying that if you got a job within five years of getting your degree you were bucking the odds. Very few have been finding work with their degree in five years. Some of the people I graduated with went the more traditional route and got their Ph.D. and became professors, and some people are doing laboratory work, and a lot of people are doing work that has nothing to do with their degree."
Q: How much interacting with the animals do you do?
A: From time to time you still need to get out there and pitch in and help out. You may be short of people. You may need extra hands for a particular project. To pick up a silverback [mature male gorilla] and get him to the hospital—he weighs over 400 pounds—requires a lot of hands. They get an injection and they quietly go into a deep sleep, and we have to go in and set him onto the cargo nets to pull him out to the hospital. So a lot of things are all hands on deck. A lot of the job is physical. And every time we do a mobilization [transporting an animal], every time we do an introduction [adding new animals to an exhibit], every time we do a new training program, I'm there.
Q: How can a hopeful zookeeper follow in your footsteps?
A: Your best bet is to go to college, get a biology degree, get some volunteer experience at a smaller zoo, then get a paid job, then try to step it up to something like Woodland Park Zoo. Most zoos require a B.S. in a biologically related field, any of the biological sciences—zoology, wildlife management and so on. Most Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos require at least two years' paid experience at a smaller zoo. That's the Catch-22. So most people will go volunteer first. First you try to volunteer, then you work as a keeper, then you work as a senior keeper-a lead keeper-then you move up to the management ranks.
Q: How hard is it to land a job at Woodland Park Zoo?
A: Woodland Park Zoo is considered one of the destination zoos in the field professionally. You have to have a [biological science] degree, and you have to have two years' paid experience at another zoo to work here. So there's a lot of competition. Every time there's a position open, we get hundreds of applications. We have a lot of other people here who have been at multiple zoos and had a lot of experience before they came to us.
Q: Does the zoo have a volunteer program?
A: We have a great volunteer program. Volunteers have to do several months of weekly training. Most people, if they work an animal unit, do a four-hour shift one day a week. Of course they don't do any of the dangerous work. The staff does that. A majority of the volunteers are ambassadors of the zoo out on the grounds. They'll do anything from helping with observations, helping us with crowd control—right now we have a group that's helping us with the tiger-cub viewing.
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