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Helping animals and promoting conservation as senior zookeeper

By Heather Graves

SUAMICO – NEW Zoo senior zookeeper Jessica Hutjens said growing up on a local dairy farm just east of De Pere, definitely helped give her a leg up in her future career in zookeeping.

“I have always had a passion for animals and conservation, so zookeeping was a natural fit,” Hutjens said.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where she earned double degrees in biology and environmental science.

After graduation, Hutjens lived and worked in Madison for a few years.

“I volunteered at the Henry Vilas Zoo doing education programs with their Ambassador Animal collection,” she said.

Hutjens started as a seasonal zookeeper at the NEW Zoo and Adventure Park in May 2003.

From there, she transitioned into a limited-term zookeeper for several years before being promoted to senior zookeeper.

“As a senior zookeeper, I oversee what we refer to as our K1 Route – there are five routes that take care of all the animals each day, each with a main route keeper in charge, then there are several relief keepers cross-trained on multiple routes to cover days off,” she said.

Hutjens said her route includes some of the zoo’s more dangerous and delicate animals.

“The animals I take care of daily include Japanese snow macaques, snow leopards, African lions, wattled cranes, American alligator, black bear, red pandas, red wolves, elk, bison and pronghorn,” she said. “I also start out each day doing a zoo clear check, basically going through the whole zoo to make sure all the animals look ok and are in their enclosures, to make sure it’s safe for other staff to enter the zoo when they get in.”

She said as a zookeeper, much of her day is filled with cleaning animal enclosures to make sure the animals have a clean, healthy environment to live in.

“Meticulous observation skills are important as well,” Hutjens said. “We need to carefully observe the animals each day. Many wild animals hide injury or illness well, so we must know the animals under our care really well to see the subtle changes in behavior or appetite.”

She said she also spends much of her time providing enrichment to the animals.

“To keep them mentally and physically stimulated, providing them with opportunities to exhibit their natural behaviors and problem-solving skills,” Hutjens said.

And with those enrichment activities comes training.

“Another large aspect of my day is training the animals under my care,” Hutjens said. “Training allows the animals to have choices about participating in their own care and helps a keeper forge a relationship with the animal, built on trust.”

She said through operant conditioning, the animals learn to participate in their own vet care – by training for things like voluntary injections or blood draws, or visual exams without being sedated.

“For instance, to get a good look at a lions paws or the underside of their belly to make sure they are healthy, I trained them to stand up, with their paws on the mesh so I can see all sides of them any time I need to, without the risk of sedation,” Hutjens said. “The lions will also do things like come up to the mesh and open their mouths up wide when I ask them too, allowing me to examine their teeth, tongue and gums for any issues they may have.”

She said in her role as senior zookeeper, she, along with the zoo’s other senior zookeeper, are in charge of monthly drills.

“We perform monthly drills to make sure all staff know what to do in an emergency situation, such as an animal escape or medical emergency, animal or people related,” Hutjens said.


Pride for the job

Hutjens said she takes great satisfaction in working hard to give the animals the best care they can, while helping to promote conservation issues.

“Some of our animals are part of wild release programs to help repopulate their wild populations,” she said. “The red wolves here are part of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, which works with captive populations to reintroduce animals to the wild. Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but through captive breeding work, they have been reintroduced to part of their native habitat, in North Carolina. Last year, some of our female red wolf Mayo’s grandpups were released to the wild to help the population continue to grow. To be a part of something so huge is truly awe inspiring. The passion zookeepers have for their work is amazing.”

Hutjens said she is also involved in the NEW Zoo’s chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers.

“We raise money for conservation efforts around the world,” she said. “We have been able to hold fundraisers at the zoo, like for International Red Panda Day each September. Then we donate the proceeds to organizations like the Red Panda Network, which works on Red Panda conservation in their native habitat. Being able to help give to worthwhile efforts is amazing, and it’s wonderful we are able to work with the zoo to make that happen.”

Hutjens said the animals at the zoo help people create a bond with their wild counterparts, and help to educate the public about conservation needs.

“The most challenging part (of the job) is definitely when you lose an animal, whether to illness or old age, it never gets easier,”she said. “Zookeepers build a strong relationship with the animals under their care, and it’s a hard blow to lose one; many tears have been shed over the years.”


COVID-19 pandemic

Like it did with many places, Hutjens said the zoo was also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID hit hard in 2020, the zoo was closed to the public for a few months, but the animal care staff worked like normal through it,” she said. “We incorporated more protective gear to ensure we keep the animals safe. Right from the start, we started wearing N95 masks and gloves around all the mammals to minimize their exposure. We still wear them for all susceptible animals, like cats, mustelids and primates. There have been a few snow leopard and lion deaths from COVID at other zoos, so we remain especially vigilant around those species.”


Team effort

Hutjens said part of what makes her job enjoyable is those she works with.

“All the keepers here are really amazing, and we work together to ensure the animals have the best life they can in captivity,” she said. “The animals are representing their wild relatives and deserve the best. The NEW Zoo and all the staff and animals are close to my heart. The passion for the animals runs deep and we are lucky to have the staff we have.

If she wasn’t a zookeeper, Hutjens said she would have been an archaeologist.

“That is what I grew up wanting to be,” she said.

Hutjens love for animals follows her home.

“I do not have human kids, just furry/scaled ones – three cats and a leopard gecko,” she said. 

It’s often said it’s the work of the people behind the scenes that make things happen. The Press Times looks to highlight those very contributions in a series called Behind the Scenes.

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