Caryn Lowe knew she wanted to work with animals back in grade school when she made frequent trips with her mom to Chicago-area zoos.
"Animals are something I've always had a passion and respect for," the 25-year-old Naperville woman said. "My love for exotics grew as I got older and got to college and realized I wanted to pursue a career in an animal-related field."
If you goWhat: Cosley Zoo
When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in summer
Where: 1356 N. Gary Ave., Wheaton
Cost: Free for Wheaton Park District residents; $3 for nonresident adults; $2 for nonresident seniors 55 and older; free for kids 17 and younger
Info: (630) 665-5534 or cosleyzoo.org
Lowe has been a part-time zookeeper for more than a year at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton. The zoo (accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) is relatively small, which means zookeepers get to work with more of the animals.
"We're really lucky because we get to work with every animal in our collection," Lowe said, including mammals, large domestics and even reptiles.
Lowe majored in animal science at the University of Illinois where she got hands-on experience working with large farm animals.
She also had a stint as a professional intern at Disney World in Orlando, where she did research with Western lowland gorillas and conducted an aggression study with tigers.
All of that comes in handy at Cosley, where zookeepers feed, groom and get the animals ready for display before the zoo opens to the public. They also clean out all the stalls, so they're ready at the end of the day for the animals' return.
On any given day, Lowe might prepare all the meals or work with the raptors or reptiles.
In addition, she helps train the animals to perform certain tasks that provide mental stimulation and ultimately make it easier for their keepers and veterinarians to handle and treat them.
Lowe is the primary trainer for Cosley's Shetland pony, a white-tailed deer and one of the raccoons.
She also spends a fair amount of time with humans.
"Would you guys want to meet a snake?" she asked a group of visiting children one recent day as she held out a fox snake, one of her favorite creatures.
The children quickly gathered around and took turns stroking the snake's back.
Lowe said she likes to educate kids about animals, especially reptiles.
"It's really cool to have them show interest in snakes, because most people are kind of afraid of them," she said.
"People think being a zookeeper is just playing with the animals," she said, "but it's so much more than that."