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updated: 7/5/2011 3:48 PM

What's it like to work a day at the zoo

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Zoology -- a Greek word meaning animal knowledge -- is the branch of biology that centers on animal study. So, if you're a zoologist, you have to learn everything about animals -- evolution, body structure, body functions, the native environment, preferences and even their prey.

A zoologist works to protect endangered species and to develop better practices so all species can live in harmony.

Tim Synder, curator of birds and reptiles at Brookfield Zoo, said one of the biggest misconceptions is zoologists who work as keepers at the zoo play with the animals.

"People who work with animals in the zoo have a high respect for them and keep in mind that they can be dangerous. We want them to be wild and we keep a distance," Snyder said.

A typical day for a keeper in Snyder's department begins around 7 or 8 a.m.

"We make sure that all is well -- that no animals were injured or scared during the night," he said.

Start time will depend on anticipated life cycle events within each exhibit, such as impending births or other issues. A baby on the way could mean that keepers need to arrive even earlier to monitor the situation.

After the initial check, food is prepared and water provided. Feeding time offers another opportunity to eyeball animals for signs of good health.

Cleanup follows. This is a relatively simple process with easy going animals like birds. Keeping in mind that larger animals are wild and can be dangerous, Snyder said.

"We shift animals into nearby spaces if we are dealing with dangerous animals," he said.

Behind-the-scenes activities include training for both the animals and the keepers. Animal training smooths the way to reduce stress during medical check ups.

"We can train larger animals to move toward a scale so we can weigh them, and train larger primates to present an arm so we can take blood samples. We train giraffes so we can to trim hoofs. This is so they won't need anesthesia for simple procedures," Snyder said.

Zoologists need to be on top of their game, so they attend conferences, seminars and lectures.

"You never stop learning," he said.

This not only helps their ability to provide top-level care to the animals, but it enables keepers to be able to provide the most accurate information to zoo guests.

"We take a lot of time to educate guests and make sure they walk away learning something. Then we know we've done our job," Snyder said.

As the day comes to a close, keepers change food pans or feed animals that are more comfortable eating when the zoo guests have left. Reprising the activities from the start of the day, keepers check the animals once more to be sure they are healthy.

Being a zoologist at the zoo means keepers face some challenges, like the inevitable loss of life that occurs almost daily in some exhibits or with animals with short life spans.

There are fun times, too, like the annual birthday party for Cookie, a Major Mitchell cockatoo that was one of the zoo's founding animals exhibited on opening day in 1919.

"We always have a party for Cookie. He's showing his age but he always gets a bran muffin cake with green bean candles," Snyder said.