Naked Mole Rat

Naked Mole Rat

Naked mole-rats appear to be bald, but they are not completely hairless. They have sensory whiskers on their face and tail, which allow them to move backward just as quickly as they can move forward.

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Meet the Keeper

Joe Brown         

Keeper-Reptiles, Amphibians, Terrestrial Invertebrates 
Date of hire: 1978

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Joe: I studied zoology at Oswego State and was part of the first comprehensive Oswego County coastal zone study of fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians in 1976.  I got a job with Onondaga County Parks and heard about an opening at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.  I've been a keeper ever since.

RGZ: What are your favorite animals at the zoo?

Joe: The "creepy-crawlies."  They're the underdogs.

RGZ: Have you done any animal research outside of the zoo?

Joe: I've participated in field studies that head start and release endangered bog turtles back into the wild and helped manage the population of the Chittenango ovate amber snail, a species only known to exist in a 12x6 meter region of Chittenango Falls.

RGZ: What are some important aspects of your job?

Joe: With amphibians and reptiles, they don't often display signs of a problem until it's too late, so feeding observation, health and well-being checks and sensitive surveillance are essential to help me get a feel for what's normal.

Rebecca "Becky" Capogreco

Keeper - Small Mammals, Penguin 
Date of hire: 1999

RGZ: What is the most important thing you do at the zoo?

Becky: Observation. The animals can't tell us when something is wrong and often they'll mask a problem. It's really important for keepers to notice even the slightest change in behavior, posture or appetite, which could indicate there is a problem. For example, when we had mandrills our oldest female, Zenani, would lean slightly when her arthritis was bothering her.

RGZ: What types of experiences make you love your job?

Becky: When I'm walking down the lion corridor and they start roaring, I sometimes stop and force myself to listen. It's easy to get caught up in my work, but I try not to take these moments for granted.

RGZ: What is the funniest thing that's happened to you while working at the zoo?

Becky: Years ago, when the new tiger building was under construction, I was working the night shift. I came around the corner on the Wildlife Trail, unaware that the tiger statue had been installed earlier in the day. For a brief moment, I thought one of the tigers had escaped! It was scary then, but funny now.

RGZ: What is your favorite season at the zoo?

Becky:
I love summer for a lot of reasons. The animals really appreciate it when we cut fresh branches for them to play with and eat. When Primate Park is open, it's great seeing the animals out there in the warmer months. Indoors, we open the windows to bring in some fresh air. A female siamang we had, Amy, loved lying in the sun. Sometimes you could even see her fur moving in the breeze.

RGZ: How have your job responsibilities changed?

Becky: I've been in the small mammals department ever since I started working at the zoo. When I began working with the penguins, it was refreshing to learn something completely different and because I entered the department during breeding season, it was yet another new element to the job.

Anne Donnelly

Anne Donnelly

Keeper-Wildlife Trails 
Date of hire: 1987

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Anne: I studied biology at LeMoyne College and was able to explore a variety of animal-related careers.  As a kid, I'd always been interested in working at a zoo, and in 1987, I accepted a job in the zoo's maintenance department.  While I was on maternity leave with my second child, I received a phone call from the zoo offering me a zookeeper position on the Wildlife Trails.

RGZ: What animals do you care for?

Anne: Snow leopards, gray wolves, Amur tigers, red pandas and white-lipped deer.

RGZ: What is your favorite part of the job?

Anne: I love training the animals. It's so important, but it wasn't always a high priority in the collective zoo world. I trained our female snow leopard, Zena, how to shift from the main exhibit to the behind-the-scenes holding area.

RGZ: How does the Syracuse winter affect your job?

Anne: My co-workers and I have to wear lots of layers to stay warm, and the bulkiness of our clothes makes it tough to navigate the steep hills and rocks on the Trails.  But, we have our fun too.  We have been known to build mini-snowmen for the red pandas to knock over.

Margaret "Peg" Dwyer

Margaret Peg Dwyer

Collection Manager-Outdoor Birds, Wildlife Trails, Contact Barn
Date of hire: 1985

RGZ: What inspired you to become a keeper?

Peg: I've always loved animals and enjoyed watching Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom.

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Peg: I volunteered at the zoo while in high school and received a bachelor's degree in zoology.  However, when it was time for me to get a job, the zoo was undergoing major renovations and there were no positions available.  I went to nursing school and worked as a licensed practical nurse for three years at St. Joseph's Hospital. Just as I was contemplating a move to South Carolina to become a registered nurse, I received a call from the zoo offering me a job.  I've been here ever since!

RGZ: What is the most important thing you do at the zoo?

Peg: Taking care of the collection.  We have a responsibility to the animals.  Without tem, where would we be?

RGZ: What's the most exciting thing you've done while working at the zoo?

Peg: I was honored and thrilled to hand-raise Ruka, a snow leopard, when his mother's milk didn't come in.  It was a lot of work caring for the baby. At first, he had to be fed every two hours around the clock.  Fortunately, we were able to bring in another orphan, Ramire, from Cleveland, to be his companion.  Eventually Ruka left our zoo and went on to be paired with another snow leopard in South Dakota.

Shawn Graham

Shawn Graham

Keeper-Elephant
Date of hire: 2001

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Shawn: I actually graduated with a degree in Recording Arts. I never really though being a zoo keeper was in my future. But when I graduated I opened a pet store with my brother. Our store was able to provide the zoo with red-eye tree frogs, a species the zoo had been interested in for some time. We donated them and through that relationship, I became more involved at the zoo. I started out as a volunteer in the reptile department and was eventually hired as a keeper in small mammals and transferred to elephants.

RGZ: What is a typical day like?

Shawn:  My day begins with a morning animal check. Then the elephant staff cleans the barn and yard. Everyday we give the elephants a head to toe bath. And during warm weather the elephants take turns visiting the yard.

RGZ: What is it like working with elephants?

Shawn: We work on training, demonstrations, and other enrichment activities. We like to hide food in their exhibit and take elephants into the woods so they can run around and push down trees. It's good to encourage the animals to use their natural instincts and get them out and moving a few times a week.

RGZ: What is special to you about working at the zoo?

Shawn: Some of my most amazing life experiences have occurred while on the job at the zoo. Witnessing a live elephant birth was definitely one of those moments I will never forget. I'm provided unique opportunities to get up close and personal with the animas and I cherish every moment.

Jeff Hewitt

Date of hire: 1994
Keeper-Reptiles, Amphibians, Invertebrates, Fish

RGZ: What made you choose your career path?

Jeff: I've loved creepy crawlies since I was a kid. To the dismay of my mother, I was always bringing home snakes, bugs, salamanders and the like.

RGZ: Where did you receive your training?

Jeff: While I grew up in Baldwinsville, I've lived all over the country. After high school, I moved to Oregon and worked for the local humane society. While living on the West Coast, I learned of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainsville, Fla., which is where I eventually earned my associate's degree. It was an intensive two year program focused specifically on zoo keeping with daily labs at the zoo, in addition to time in the classroom.

RGZ: What did you do prior to working at the zoo?

Jeff: At the time of my college graduation, the nation was in a recession and zoo jobs were even more difficult to come by. I moved to Austin, Texas and managed a pet store for eight years. While living in Texas, I met the late Joe Lazlo, head of the herpes department at the San Antonio Zoo. He is considered the pioneer of captive snake breeding and was such an interesting person to know. 

RGZ: How did you wind up at the zoo?

Jeff: I missed the changing of the seasons, so in 1990 I made the decision to move back to New York. I worked at a pet store in the area until a position became available at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in 1994. I began working with indoor and outdoor birds and eventually made it to my current department, which is where my primary interests lay.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal?

Jeff: I really like Irwin, our rhinocerous iguana. However, I've always had a personal interest in snakes. One of my all time favorite animals is Noah, a boa constrictor that we used in our outreach program.

Stephanie Kershaw

Keeper-Wildlife Trails
Date of hire: 2001

RGZHow did you become a keeper? 

Stephanie: I graduated college with a degree in English and worked many odds and ends jobs when I graduated. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, but the skills I learned in those jobs have helped me here at the zoo like working with a variety of animals and handling their needs.

RGZ: What do you enjoy most about being a keeper?

Stephanie: I like to keep busy. I'm inside and outside; there's always something to do. I'm always busy and the zoo even gets me out in the winter!

RGZ: What is the behind-the-scenes work of a keeper like?

Stephanie: What most people see us doing is picking up manure or feeding the animals but there is a lot more going on. Keepers do a lot of training, health checks and enrichment too.

RGZ: What is your relationships with the animals like?

Stephanie: Through our involvement with the animals, we learn a lot about the different characteristics and quirks of each animal. For example, Tundra is the "puppy dog" of our reindeer. She loves interacting with people and follows the keepers around. You could get Peg, one of the reindeer we used to have, to do just about anything if you had bread on you. We always had to be careful in our old red fox enclosure. Sami, the grey colored fox, would sneak up behind and steal anything protruding out of the keepers pockets!

Tom LaBarge

Tom LaBarge

Curator
Date of hire: 1986

RGZ:
As a curator, what kinds of things do you do?

Tom:
I oversee the wildlife, handle supplies, logistics, work with the vets, help schedule health checks and more. It's kind of a catch-all job. I'm also the markhor species manager for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as for some zoos in Canada.  I am in charge of coming up with breeding recommendations, transfer recommendations and really anything that concerns the species.

RGZ:
Why markhor?

Tom: Because they're the best and no one else cares about them as much as I do. I mean, tigers and pandas are nice, but they have thousands of people liking them already. I tend to care about the animals that no one else cares about."

RGZ: Have you had any close calls as a keeper?

Tom: After college I worked at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, and one day a senior keeper needed help moving an alligator from the basement to its outdoor enclosure. My job was to hold its tail.  While we were moving, we had to walk up these concrete steps and I lost my footing. I almost fell into a giant tortoise exhibit, but I was able to grab the railing with my legs.  Luckily I was young and still had control of my knees.

RGZ:
What makes the fall a great time to visit the zoo?

Tom: A lot of the animals on the trail are more active.  The snow leopards and red pandas are more visible, and because the big horned sheep rut in the fall, the males will butt heads. You can actually see most of the outdoor animals better in the cooler weather."

RGZ: What is the biggest misconception about animal keepers?

Tom: Keepers are the backbone of the zoo but most people think it's just all a bunch of fun, and that all we do is feed the animals and clean up after them.  It's so much more than that.  We need to know our animals individually, be able to read them, understand when they're ill, and know how to behave around them in different situations.

John Moakler

John Moakler

Collection Manager-Elephants
Date of hire: 1985

RGZ: How did you get into zoo keeping?           

John: After graduating from high school, I was offered a summer position in the maintenance department at the Utica Zoo. I intended to go to college in the fall, but was offered a keeper position after the season was over. I began working in the children's zoo, training sea lions and conducting animal demonstrations. After a year, I transferred departments and began working with primates, big cats and bears. I spent more than five years at the Utica Zoo then worked for about a year and half at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans before returning to Syracuse to work at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

RGZ: Whats a unique experience you've had as a keeper?

John: My oldest son was born in New Orleans. At the time, I was hand-raising a gorilla and three orangutans and my life at work paralleled my life at home: bottle feedings, diaper changes, et cetera. When my son was about five months old, my wife brought him to the zoo for a visit. I took him in the nursery with me and the animal babies were very curious about my human baby.

RGZ: You were part of the team that took Tundi, the Asian elephant, to London. Tell us about that.

John: After months of training and preparing Tundi for his transatlantic flight, Chuck Doyle, (veterinarian) Noha Abou-Madi and I drove with Tundi to Toronto where we caught a plane to London Heathrow Airport. We were on a double-decker plane with about 250 other passengers. They all knew something unique was happening, because the three of us would get up from time to time to check on Tundi, who was riding in the cargo hold behind the flight attendants' service area. Each of the pilots made a point to come and see Tundi in his crate. I'm sure it's something most of them had never done before-transporting an elephant.

RGZ: You've been up to Canada to visit our elephants in preparation for their return home. What was that like?

John: It was a lot of fun and it was good to see the elephants. Mali showed the most interest in us. It took Targa a couple of days and then it seemed like something clicked and she realized we were back. The elephants haven't missed a beat in the years they've been gone. There will be some adjustment upon their return, as some of the commands they use at African Lion Safari are different from the ones we use. But their philosophy is very similar to ours, so it should be relatively easy to re-train them when they return.

RGZ: What about little Chuck? What was it like working with him?

John: Even though he doesn't really know us, he listened very well. He's a good little elephant-willing to please and he's got a very good personality. It will be great to bring him home to meet everyone.

Deb Roth

Keeper-Aquariums
Date of hire: 1993

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Deb: I started out as a volunteer and worked my way up to a keepers position. Before I was in the aquariums department I worked in the domestic animal barn, small mammals department, and as a back up with elephants.

RGZ: What are some of your daily duties in aquariums?

Deb: Each tank has its own little ecosystem, so the animals rely on us to keep it at prime condition. Everyday we check the tanks to make sure the water and glass are clear and that the temperature is correct. Some days there are new babies and other days there are dead fish to remove.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite exhibit?

Deb: The most popular exhibit is the clown-fish exhibit, known for there orange, black and white stripes and dubbed "Nemo" by Disney. But my favorite is the yellow-headed jawfish who share an exhibit with the clown fish. They are an industrious fish. They dig the best tunnels in the world and they do it under water!

RGZ: What other activities have you become involved in with your time at the zoo?

Deb: I have become a canine evaluator through the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program. It is a certification program that tests dogs in simulated, everyday situations in a relaxed atmosphere to identify ones that will act as reliable family and community members. I help train and identify these dogs and administer the AKC Canine Good Citizen test at PetCo.

Tamara "Tammy" Singer

Collection Manager-Amphibians, Reptiles, Fish, Invertebrates, Outreach Animals, Indoor Birds
Date of hire: 1999

RGZ: What is the best part of your job?

Tammy: Training and enrichment; training enables keepers to have closer bonds with the animals and, as a form of enrichment, has a huge impact on their quality of life.

RGZ: What is the most exciting thing you've seen while working at the zoo?

Tammy: As most keepers will agree, watching an animal give birth is really special. It is so amazing to me that animals give birth, get up and continue on with their daily lives. Their wild instincts-to find food and protect their babies from predators-tell them they don't have the luxury of recuperating."

RGZ: What is your best memory?

Tammy: Seeing Amy, our female siamang, give birth to Hujan in 1999. I felt so privileged to be there because my bond with Amy was strong enough that she could be comfortable in trusting me to watch a very intimate moment. It was really incredible to watch; Amy actually reached down and re-positioned the baby to make delivery easier.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal in your area?

Tammy: I worked with elephants during an internship at the zoo, and they have been my favorite ever since. It's hard not to have a connection with elephants once you've had a chance to work closely with them.

RGZ:
Tell us about a time when you immediately thought "I love my job."

Tammy: I feel that way every time I give an elephant bath. When you're standing there with a scrub brush in your hand and an 8,000 pound animal lying in front of you, what else could you possibly think? Not a week goes by that I don't think to myself how lucky I am to do this for a living."

Conrad "C.J." Teufel

Conrad C.J. Teufel

Keeper-Small Mammals 
Date of hire: 2006

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

C.J.: I began volunteering at Summer Zoo Camp and with EdZOOcation in eighth grade. After highschool I went to Morrisville State but missed the animals and realized how much the zoo had become a part of my life. I decided to transfer to SUNY Oswego to study zoology. I interned on the Wildlife Trails and a few months later a keepers position opened in small mammals department.

RGZ: What is your relationship to the animals like?

C.J.: As a zookeeper, I care for the animals like I care for my friends and family. When any of the animals pass, it's heartbreaking. But for every loss , there are ten times as many happy memories.

RGZ: What do you enjoy most about your job?

C.J.: I enjoy the enrichment and training. It's a great feeling when I've figure out a training activity that is successful. I also act as the animals personal chef. I make meals for every animal from pigeons, to sloths, to the otters. When I'm not making food or training, I enjoy watching and observing the animals' behaviors.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal?

C.J.: Malaki, the siamang, was pretty cool. She was quite an acrobat; she ran across the exhibit and looked like she was going to fall on her face. At the last second, she would grab one of the ropes and go swinging through the air! It looked like so much fun!

Deborah "Deb" Tobin

Keeper-Penguin, Small Mammals
Date of hire: 2002

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Deb: After my sophomore year of college I applied as was accepted at RGZ for a summer internship and did a second one my next summer. After graduating, I took a seasonal keeper position and was offered a full time position in 2002. I fell in love with what zoo keepers did, watching animal behaviors and providing enrichment for the animals.

RGZ: What is working with penguins like?

Deb: Daily work includes hand feeding, head counts, and daily behavioral and health observations but no one day is the same. It can be difficult with penguins, it's like working with two year-olds; they can throw tantrums any time.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite penguin?

Deb: Jake. He is a very mellow bird and easy to work with; he seems to grow on everyone. He is also entertaining in breeding season. When it's time to feed, Jake will stay back while the other eat and steals rocks from their nests to line his own! Observing these quirky behaviors is the most exciting part of my job.

RGZ: What do you enjoy most about working at the zoo?

Deb: Working with a coheisve team. Working with people who share the same passion as you is what makes work enjoyable. Being a zoo keeper can be a difficult job at times, but it's the people here who make it easier.

Adrienne Whiteley

Collection Manager-Small Mammals, Penguin
Date of hire: 1977

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Adrienne: I began a temporary job at the ticket booth at the zoo while I was in college. Due to the small size of the staff, when it became known that I was interested in animals and had some experience with dogs and horses, I was often asked to assist with animal care. I enjoyed doing anything that involved animals and, frankly, was happy to get out of the ticket booth as often as possible. At the end of the seasonal position I was asked to stay on as a keeper. When the county took over operation of the zoo in 1979 I was retained on the permanent staff. The zoo was closed temporarily for renovations in 1983. During that time I cared for the animals that were still part of the zoo's collection and also participated in our animal outreach programs. In 1985, as the zoo prepared to reopen, I was promoted to senior keeper of the small mammal area. In 1998 I also began to be responsible for all the animal records as the zoo's registrar.

RGZ: What is a typical day like in your area?

Adrienne: My days vary. I work in animal care, record keeping and tours, and supervise personnel and take part in medical procedures. What is nice about my day is that it is never typical. One of my favorite parts about my job is that I learn something new every day. The opportunity for learning is limitless.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal in your area?

Adrienne: I especially enjoy the lions and siamangs. I find the elephants fascinating, even though I don't work with them. There are very few animals I don't like, although some, like spiders, I appreciate more from a distance.

RGZ: What is the most important thing you do at the zoo?

Adrienne: We always provide a high level of care and work hard to meet the needs of all of the members of our diverse animal collection. We constantly strive to improve to provide the optimum care. Educating our visitors about our animals and the role they can play in the health of our planet is an opportunity I take seriously. When people see our dedication and passion, it can sometimes be a trigger, and may persuade them to care as much about animals, conservation and the future as we do.

RGZ: What is the most exciting thing you've seen while working at the zoo?

Adrienne: I've seen a lot of amazing things. I've watched a female gibbon teaching her baby how to walk. She literally set her baby down, backed up three feet and held out her arms. She did it multiple times. I've watched a condor hatch, the birth of a sloth and an elephant. Watching animals come into the world never gets old.

Lucas Whitman

Keeper-Outdoor Birds 

RGZ: Have you always wanted to be a keeper?

Lucas: I intended to major in education at SUNY Oswego, but at the last minute changed my mind and switched to zoology, which I realized was much more appealing to me. I began as an intern at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo and then worked a few summers as a seasonal keeper, which gave me experience at Penguin Coast and with the other birds. Then I worked a winter on the Wildlife Trail, caring for various hoof stock, the foxes, lynx, fishers and red wolves.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite exhibit?

Lucas: Probably the water fowl pond. I especially like it in the spring while the birds are nesting. There is a lot of activity and it's cool to see the ducks courtship behaviors and fun to watch the ducklings.

RGZ: What is the coolest thing you've done while working at the zoo?

Lucas: While interning, I worked with the baby penguins during breeding season. I helped wean them and hand-feed them which was pretty amazing. I helped raise Hugo and it was neat to watch him grow from chick to adult bird.

RGZ: What is the most important part of your job?

Lucas: Educating the public about the birds around them and helping them have a greater appreciation of birds and also teaching about conservation. It's always fun to see people's expression when a keeper comes out with a huge falcon or hawk on their arm.

Sara Worthley

Keeper-Small Mammals
Date of hire: 2000

RGZ: How did you become a keeper?

Sara: I always knew I wanted to work with animals; I didn't necessarily plan on being a zoo keeper. But after I did two internships here at RGZ and one at Wolf Park in Indiana, my decision to be a keeper was solidified.

RGZ: What is a typical day like?

Sara: My day begins at 7:30. I make the rounds, checking on all the animals, and then I prepare and administer morning medications. I also deliver meals, clean exhibits and training.

RGZ: What do you enjoy most about being a keeper?

Sara: Training. It's a way to communicate with the animals and establish bonds with them. It's fun but can be hard work. They can outsmart you. Training and working so closely with the animals is very rewarding. [Being a keeper] is the most wonderful job. I enjoy coming to work because everyday brings a new experience.

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal to work with?

Sara: My son Joey always loved J.J., the mandrill. The second he walked through the door he wanted to go see him. We were not allowed to eat lunch or do anything else until we visited the mandrill.

Matt Zera

Matt Zera

Keeper-Small Mammals 
Date of hire: 1994

RGZ: What is the best part of your job?

Matt: Training, especially when it involves animals that have little to no training in the past.  As former Zoo Director Chuck Doyle likes to say, 'You can train anything.' I tested this theory when I worked in the domestic animal barn by training our sheep. Most people think sheep are dumb, but our sheep learned to target, walk on the balance beam and go through a hoop. Chuck was right.

RGZ: Tell us about a time when you immediately thought "I love my job."

Matt: The first time I handled Hagrid, our great horned owl, I thought to myself, 'This is so cool.' I've always been fascinated by owls and he was such an impressive bird. Being that close, feeling the power of his talons and the strength

RGZ: Do you have a favorite animal?

Matt: Without a doubt, it's Jeckyl the pied crow. I began working with Jeckyl in 2000 and it was very difficult. She hadn't taken to anyone, but for some reason she took to me. Soon she began vocalizing when I showed up and eventually she trusted me enough to allow me to hand feed her. After a while, I introduced her to jesses (thin leather straps worn around the bird's ankles) which allowed me to walk around the park with her on my hand. Eventually we established a bond and her quality of life improved because of the changes we were able to make to her daily routine.