Chris Elam wakes up at the crack of dawn and dodges his way through early commuter traffic each morning to ensure his beloved giraffes will find his friendly face to take care of them another day.
This is what it means to be a zookeeper.
Elam is one of the many zookeepers at the Dallas Zoo who work tirelessly behind the scenes to provide attention and care for the animals that citizens love to observe. National Zookeeper Week is a way to give zookeepers like him recognition for all they do.
“I grew up loving animals,” Elam says. “And growing up, we didn’t have cable, so we only had certain channels, and on PBS there was a show that was pretty much the innovator of expeditions, and I used to just love that. I wanted to do things like that.”
In high school, Elam took an aptitude test, which determined he would make a great veterinarian or architect. Elam took his results to heart and decided to further his education at the Texas State Technical College as a veterinary technician.
“I loved the science of it and the blood of it all,” Elam says. “But I figured out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It wasn’t being with the animals or being outside with them. Then I figured out zookeeping, and I started to look into volunteering here, and I guess they liked me so much that I didn’t even get to the volunteer part.”
After finding his niche in zookeeping, Elam has happily stayed at the Dallas Zoo — his 24th anniversary on the job is this September — where he worked with animals from cheetahs to rhinoceroses.
“I like the big guys — giraffes, rhinos and hippos, but rhinos have been my favorite animal to work with,” Elam says. “Back when we had rhinos, we had a 2- or 3-week-old who was very lethargic and needed medical attention. So we took him to a hole-in-the-wall hospital, and I trained his mother, who was so accepting of me, to let me milk her so I could take the milk to him. That was probably the highlight of my career.”
Although the Dallas Zoo no longer has rhinoceroses, Elam is just as amazed working with giraffes.
“I really just love the nature, being with these animals, being outside and taking every moment in,” he says. “Every day is different with the animals. Some days we, as humans, might not feel so good, or some days we might feel great, and we get the same thing from them. Every day is just different, and the bond you build with them over this time is so big. They know you; they know your voice.”
Elam says many people don't realize what zoos and zookeepers do.
“No one really knows what we do for conservation or how much money we give or the volunteering that we do,” Elam says. “They don’t see what goes into the job that we have and the love and the passion we have for what we do because it is behind the scenes. There’s so much more behind the scenes than people see. There’s a lot to it.”
Zookeeper Kathy Fitzpatrick also spends the majority of workdays behind the scenes, mainly feeding the birds until they’re so full they’ll ignore her, she says.
Fitzpatrick began working for the Dallas Zoo in 1992, first in education on the monorail. After letting her bosses know she wanted to work with birds, she became a bird zookeeper.
“I’m just a natural birder,” Fitzpatrick says. “I worked in social work, and I used to volunteer as kind of an outlet, and I thought to myself, ‘I missed my calling,’ because I originally started out as a teacher.”
After teaching, Fitzpatrick worked at racquetball clubs and fitness areas and in her free time hiked, camped and watched birds.
“Through that time, my outlet was to come here, and I thought this was just wonderful,” Fitzpatrick says. “So then I had enough education with my degree to get hired into the Department of Education, and then I just got more and more experience. Every time I had downtime on the train, I volunteered to work with mammals and birds. Then I had enough experience to then work in the bird department.”
Over the years, Fitzpatrick found the ultimate challenge and joy is learning how to mix birds that originate from six continents into a habitat where they can all coexist.
“We have species from all over the world and, except from Antarctica, every continent,” she says. “The malkoha is from Sumatra ... the scissorbills are Indonesian. They would never see each other in the wild. That’s just crazy to me.”
Because many believe birds are the underdogs at the zoo, Fitzpatrick aims to show visitors how fantastic they are.
Birds interact. They follow animals and animals with parasites. They’re smart and they’re everywhere. Everywhere there is a mammal, there is a bird, Fitzpatrick explains.
“I think they’re fantastic,” Fitzpatrick says. “Maybe the public’s perception of them is not as ‘wow’ as an elephant or a lion or something that is much bigger, but you can’t go interact with lions.”
Visitors also can’t interact with reptiles, but reptile and amphibian zookeeper Carl Hollowed does it with little to no fear.
Hollowed is from Ireland and moved to the U.S. in 2004 after receiving a soccer scholarship. He was hired in the reptile department in 2011.
“I grew up loving reptiles, but we don’t have any snakes in Ireland,” he says. “When I moved to the U.S., the first time I saw a snake in the wild got me in trouble, but it was awesome.”
Hollowed was 21 and on his way to a soccer practice when a snake crossed his path, and he chased it into a bush, causing him to be 20 minutes late. It was worth it, he says.
“I work with snakes all the time, but I still get excited if I see a snake out in the wild,” Hollowed says. “I love coming to work every day. I’m so lucky. I never thought I’d be able to work with animals. I mean, in Ireland, we have our own biodiversity and it’s beautiful, but we don’t have snakes. I just think it’s awesome — for the kids, especially.”
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Hollowed and other zookeepers are working on reptile awareness and two conservation projects.
“We have a couple projects going on at the moment — one being for the endangered Texas horned lizard and the other for gopher frogs,” he says. “We are actually releasing some when they hatch into the wild this fall.”
This will be the first time in history the Dallas Zoo will release animals into the wild.
“It means everything to me to make a difference, no matter how small, for our animals,” Hollowed says. “So many disappear every day, and we're doing conservation work, we're donating money and releasing animals into the wild. We’re making a difference, and it means the world to me to be a zookeeper.”