Throwback Thursday: Teen Zookeepers

Potter Park Zoo has offered a volunteer teen zookeeper program for over 30 years, providing hands-on opportunities for youth to explore the world of work at the zoo, and acquire knowledge and skills to prepare them for future employment. 

The summer program began in the late 1980s, and was a joint effort between Potter Park’s zookeeper and education staff. It was aimed towards individuals ages 12 to 18, but would shift focus slightly over the years. Under the program, teens would work directly with keepers on day-to-day activities, including diet preparation and enclosure maintenance. The occasional odd task would add variety to their schedule, and often proved to be the most memorable. These might include accompanying a harnessed pig through the park, feeding fish to the penguins, making a special enrichment for animals, or observing a medical procedure.      

Former participant Marie remembered well her unique duties as a teen zookeeper: 

“My favorite job back then was working with the rhinos. I hear Doppsee is a mama now :). I used to love giving her baths and she had this ball she’d play with. It was adorable, just like a giant puppy.* There are countless more memories that I love from those summer. I feel so lucky I was able to be part of such a great program!”

In the 1990s, opportunities expanded to include roles in the education department. Volunteers would assist with the summer Zookambi program, accompanying groups out in the zoo and helping with hands-on activities and class management. Prospective volunteers were asked to submit an application and teacher recommendation as well as a commitment to a minimum number of hours per season.  

Kenedy recalls her experience as both a volunteer zookeeper and educator:

“I was able to be behind the scenes of the zoo and do things I don’t think anyone else would be able to, like hand feed a bald eagle or get up close to so many of the animals. Helping with Zookambi summer camp was also a lot of fun and taught me many valuable lessons in teaching.” 

Currently, the program is structured as a two-pronged experience for students ages 14-18. During the first year, students (known as Teen Zoo Volunteers) assist either in Zookambi or in the seasonal animal contact areas, which include the goat exhibit in the farmyard, the pony rides, or the Wings of Wonder bird feeding experience. After the first year, participants can then apply to become a Junior Zookeeper, where they will work directly alongside keepers. Unfortunately, due to the impact of COVID, the 2020 season was cancelled, and some changes were implemented for 2021. This year, students will not be able to work with the zookeepers or animals, but will instead take part in a new education department conservation initiative for the public. 

The junior zoo program is a great way to explore career pathways and develop valuable skills. For participants like Maggie, the program even served as a bridge to future opportunities:

“I loved [the work] and came back every year throughout middle school and high school. The program is one of the most comprehensive teen volunteer programs I have ever encountered. We were able to try all aspects of zookeeping, from helping education staff with the zoo campers and interacting with visitors in the farmyard, to cleaning exhibits, preparing diets and enrichment and even attending vet visits with the keepers. I was so inspired by the dedicated staff of Potter Park that by the time I enrolled in college, I already knew I was a zoology major. I have been a full-time keeper for 16 years, the last 14 at the Fort Worth Zoo, but every time I’m home I try to visit to see what great new things Potter Park is doing and am always impressed by this zoo’s commitment to animal care, conservation and community interaction.”

While not everyone will find their calling like Maggie, we hope the program fosters warm memories in all of our young volunteers, along with an appreciation for the zoo’s mission and a desire to make good choices for the future of the planet.

Do you have a story regarding your time as a teen volunteer? Share your story. Go to “Contact” on this website and leave a message in the drop-down menu to “What is your message regarding?” – “Story Submissions for Zoo Centennial.” Please include the decade or general time frame that applies to your story.