Meet the Aquarist: Lyssa Torres

Although it’s National Zoo Keeper Week, we can’t forget about our team of aquarists! Without these dedicated professionals, the Carolina SciQuarium wouldn’t be the fascinating place our visitors know and love.

Lyssa Torres gave us the inside scoop about what it’s like to be an aquarist. She’s been in the profession for about three years and has been at the Greensboro Science Center for a little over one year. She has always loved the ocean and sea life, but what pushed her over the edge and made her decide to become an aquarist was a documentary on jellyfish.

Although there are no jellyfish in the SciQuarium (yet; who knows what the future holds?), Lyssa has plenty of other critters and chores to keep her busy. On a typical day in the SciQuarium, aquarists start the morning by checking all of the tanks. They take water samples, clean windows, test the water quality, prepare diets, feed the animals, clean filters, perform water changes, make salt water… it’s a pretty intense list!

And aquarists must know much more than just information about the animals they care for. They have to be proficient in things like plumbing, chemistry and animal medications as well.

Lyssa says the reward is worth it. She loves seeing an animal do well on exhibit, especially when it’s one she hasn’t taken care of before. She also enjoys watching the visitors’ reactions as they interact with animals.

Her favorite part of the job, though, as you might imagine, is getting wet. Whether she’s participating in dives or training the eagle ray, she loves being in the water.

Lyssa with Eagle Ray

Lyssa feeding the SciQuarium’s spotted eagle ray.

So, what’s the worst part of the job?

“Sometimes the cleaning can get kind of repetitive,” she said.

However, the rather mundane task of cleaning is all part of the job… A job which led to a pretty cool story to tell at parties…

“I was head-butted by a whale shark,” Lyssa said. She was feeding them from an inflatable boat as in intern at the Georgia Aquarium. Apparently, she wasn’t feeding them fast enough and one let her know in a rather intrusive manner!

As you have hopefully learned from this week’s blog series, our zoo keepers and aquarists are incredible individuals. They work hard – and play hard – and have some amazing stories to tell. Although National Zoo Keeper Week is coming to a close for 2014, please remember these folks any time you visit and thank them for the work they do to ensure the health, happiness and well-being of our animals.

Meet the Keeper: Lauren Irk

Lauren has worked as a zoo keeper at the Greensboro Science Center for about four and a half years. She knew early on that she wanted to work with animals, but didn’t want to become a veterinarian. The primary reason was that she didn’t want the responsibility of euthanizing animals. “It would be too hard,” Lauren said. “I would cry every time.”

So, she took her passion for animal care along a different route by enrolling in Davidson County Community College’s Zoo and Aquarium Science program. During the program, she became an intern at the Greensboro Science Center and, in her second year, was hired part-time by the Center. Since then, she has worked her way up and is now a full time keeper in the Center’s herpetology department.

Her primary responsibilities include making diets, feeding, administering medications when necessary and general cleaning. Although general cleaning does include the dreaded “scooping of the poop,” she did note that reptiles don’t go to the bathroom as often as mammals… which, um, we guess is a job perk…

But, to Lauren, the real perks are a bit different. She loves talking to kids. “They’re funny,” she said, “especially when they know stuff already.”

She also enjoys it when new animals arrive. It’s always exciting for her to have something different to work with – especially if it’s a new species.

“I like being a female in the reptile department,” Lauren said. It is typically a male-dominated field and people are often surprised to hear what Lauren does for a living. However, Lauren is surprised at the number of female counterparts she has in zoos across the country. So take heart, ladies, if your passion lies in pythons, you’re not alone.

Lauren with a skink

Keeper, Lauren, with one of her charges – a blue tongued skink.

While you might think the danger of a reptile keeper’s career lies in the rattlesnake, copperhead or Burmese python, don’t be fooled. The real threats are tortoises… “I’ve been stampeded by tortoises,” Lauren admits. “If there’s food, they will stampede. They’ll run you over for it.” (Note: no zoo keepers were harmed in the telling of this anecdote.)

Another interesting thing you might not know about a reptile keeper’s job is that they spend time training their animals. That’s right, they can be taught! The Center’s tortoises have learned to target and are now learning to pick up their feet when asked. And Maggie, the rhinoceros iguana, is learning to wear a harness.

All of the keepers in the herpetology department get along great, Lauren said. They each have specific jobs they do and specific animals to care for each day, but they also have a little time to have fun. While they do tend to goof off occasionally, one thing they always take seriously is the health and well-being of their animals.

Meet the Keeper: Rachael Campbell

In honor of National Zoo Keeper Week, we took a few minutes to sit down with some of our amazing zoo keepers and learn more about them and the role they play here at the Greensboro Science Center. As Senior Keeper, Rachael Campbell, explains, there’s much more to the job than scooping poop and cuddling animals.

Rachael and Kisa

Rachael giving tiger, Kisa, medication.

Rachael always wanted to work with animals. In college, she began exploring internships at zoos and was lucky enough to secure a position with Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa. During her internship, she worked primarily in the petting zoo area and assisted a bit with the bird collection. Just 3 months after graduating college, she was hired by the same zoo.

And so began her zoo keeper career… and it’s a difficult one.

“So many people want to work with animals,” Rachael says. But the job is much more than that, which is why zoo keepers are college educated, degree-holding professionals.

Being a zoo keeper requires extensive knowledge of animal habitats. It also requires heavy labor as keepers are responsible for building and enhancing exhibits. Keepers also make diets, train animals… and yes, scoop poop.

The schedule is demanding. Keepers are often the first to arrive at the GSC. They work holidays, nights and weekends and in all kinds of weather, from oppressive heat to ice storms.

Being a zoo keeper also comes with its share of difficult moments. Rachael says the most challenging part of the job to her is losing an animal. It’s also tough when an animal gets sick and there’s no obvious reason as to why. Keepers spend their days caring for and bonding with their animals, so you can imagine how hard an illness or loss can be for them.

With that in mind, one might wonder why zoo keepers keep doing what they do. Well, being a keeper has its perks. How many people can say they’ve played “got your paw” with a lioness?

Rachael can.

At Blank Park Zoo, she developed a very close bond with a lioness. The lion would stick her declawed front paws under the fence for Rachael to grab. When she got her paw, the lion would pull her paw back, turn her head to the side, open her mouth, and stick her paws under the fence again for another round!

To Rachael, that’s the most rewarding part of her job: building relationships with exotic species and having them recognize her and do what she asks (8 times out of 10, she qualifies).

From humble beginnings as an intern with the Blank Park Zoo to her current position of Senior Keeper at the Greensboro Science Center, Rachael has worked her way up over the past several years. She credits her success to her willingness to do the grunt work. She understood early on that being a zookeeper has its share of less-than-glamorous work. Her professional attitude allows her to appreciate that you learn as you go in this profession and the only way to succeed is to be open to different tasks and experiences.