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Article posted: 8/5/2013 12:09 PM

Zookeeper Jenny Theuman helps visitors connect with animals in Wheaton

Zookeeper Jenny Theuman helps visitors connect with animals at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton

By Susan Dibble

It's a pleasant summer day and cars already are lining up to get into Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.

Inside the 5-acre facility, families with young children may view exhibits that range from domestic animals to Madagascar hissing cockroaches to bobcats; watch animal training demonstrations; visit a discovery station; or stop any blue-shirted zookeeper with questions.

"It's always really cool to see kids make that connection with animals," says Jenny Theuman, one of those zookeepers. "That is one of the favorite parts of my job, seeing people connect with nature."

Actually, Theuman confesses she loves all parts of her job -- although she's not always thrilled with the cleaning up part. She's involved with feeding the animals, training them, providing stimulating activities for them, noticing their behavior for any signs of illness or problems, and fostering in visitors an appreciation for the four-legged and feathered creatures in their midst.

The animals themselves help forge those connections with visitors, with some definitely more outgoing that others, Theuman says.

Donkeys Elmo and Jessie go to the fence for people to scratch them, and have been known to thrust their heads in a stroller or two. Echo, the great-horned owl that Theuman trains, is up for programs on-site and off.

"All the animals have a personality, and getting to know those personalities helps you take better care of them," Theuman says.

Take Holly, the friendly Guernsey cow. One day when Theuman was taking her into the barn, she noticed Holly wasn't walking in her usual way or interacting with Theuman as she usually did. That prompted Theuman to take a closer look and she found Holly was running a fever that the staff quickly treated.

Being tuned in to an animal's typical behavior can be especially important with wildlife, which typically will hide a weakness as they would in the wild, Theuman says.

One of two full-time and seven part-time keepers, Theuman, who works 36 hours a week, says everybody take turns caring for all the zoo's more than 150 animals.

"We're such a small facility, everybody has to be an expert in everything," Theuman says.

Building up the zoo

Each zookeeper also has particular animals they are assigned to train. Theuman's are Echo, the horned owl who has been taught to sit on a glove; Big Ray, one of the llamas who doesn't care to be touched; and Sal (short for Salvador), one of the two bobcats added to the zoo last year.

The keepers train animals by giving positive reinforcement to the behaviors they want and ignoring the behaviors they don't want, she says.

The bobcats are especially fun to watch, Theuman says.

"What they lack in size, they make up for in personality," she says.

Within a day after their arrival, Sal and his brother, Val (Valentino), were catching any bird who had the bad judgment to fly through their enclosure. Sal is more reserved than his brother, but Val will run to the fence to take a look at the person on the other side.

When they experienced their first snowfall this past winter, Sal sat on his heated rock while Val took a playful roll in the white stuff.

The bobcats are at the zoo thanks to funding from the Cosley Foundation, which has paid for many of the capital projects at the zoo owned by the Wheaton Park District, said zoo director Susan Wahlgren.

The foundation held its 30th annual Cosley Classic Golf Outing on Monday. Wahlgren said last year's event brought in $35,000. The zoo is looking at several capital projects for possible funding in the coming year, she said.

Theuman said the zoo draws visitors not just from Wheaton and the surrounding area, but people taking day trips from places such as Indiana and other parts of Illinois.

"It's a great place for families," she says. "It's little enough you could blow through it in an hour or two, but you could spend half a day, or even a whole day, here it you wanted to."

Theuman also says Cosley is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an honor for a small zoo that must meet the same standards as larger facilities.

"For me, it's important that I work in an accredited facility because it means the quality of care and programs are high," she says.

Finding a career

Theuman wasn't thinking about becoming a zookeeper when she was growing up in Massachusetts. Sure she loved animals and her family owned dogs, but she was interested in the culinary arts. Then she took a job cooking in a nursing home right after high school and found she hated it.

A college counselor helped her fund her interest in the environment. She earned a bachelor's degree with a concentration in wildlife care and education.

While in college, she did an internship at Buttonwood Zoo in New Bedford, Mass., and was hired after she graduated. She went on to earn a master's in interdisciplinary sciences, with a concentration in zoo and aquarium leadership collection management.

"As it turns out, I'm really great with animals," she says.

After her husband's job transfer took them to the Chicago area, where he works at Shedd Aquarium, Theuman took a seasonal job at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. She joined Cosley a little less than two years ago.

Theuman exemplifies the qualities zookeepers need to have to be successful in a competitive career field, Wahlgren said.

"It's not just a job. It's a way of life," Wahlgren said. "You have to be someone totally dedicated."

Theuman doesn't mind sharing that when a storm blew down branches in her Westchester neighborhood, she piled them into her SUV to take to the animals at Cosley to munch on.

"I'm sure there were a lot of people on Roosevelt Road while I was driving in who thought I was a little crazy with branches hanging out of my car," she says.

Theuman said she would encourage anyone who thinks they might be interested in a career as a zookeeper to do internships and/or volunteer work. They also need to be interested in science, she said.

"It's not snuggling animals at all," she says. "It's a labor of love. You don't do it to get rich because it will never happen."

Theuman, who has a 3-month-old son, already has taken him to the zoo several times and enjoys visiting natural areas in her free time.

"Illinois is a great place for all the forest preserves you have," she says. "I like going to wild spaces to find wild animals."

Located at 1356 N. Gary Ave., Wheaton, Cosley Zoo is open year-round. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through October. Admission is free to Wheaton residents, members and children up to age 17. Admission for nonresident adults is $5 for ages 18-54 and $4 for ages 55 and older. For details, contact (630) 665-5534 or www.cosleyzoo.org.

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