The Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Garden is celebrating National Zookeeper Week – taking place from July 16 through July 22. Our staff of zookeepers are hardworking, passionate and driven individuals who spend each day caring for the animals in their various departments! This week, we are highlighting six zookeepers; ranging from elephant to carnivore caretakers. First up is Josh Lucas! Keeper Josh cares for the reptiles and amphibians of the OKC Zoo.
How long have you worked at the Zoo?
I’ve worked at the zoo for almost four and a half years – this doesn't include the year I volunteered while I was still attending college.
What is a typical day like in your position?
My areas of primary care include animals at the Herpetarium and Island Life buildings, which means I’m usually bouncing between the two. In one day at the Zoo, I’ll generally care for frogs as tiny as your thumbnail and giant tortoises that weigh upwards of 450 pounds. Animal husbandry or “care” is somewhat hard to quantify, but for reptile specialists can mean a multitude of things. There is such an awe-inspiring diversity among reptiles and amphibians that it’s difficult to get bored. I’m always learning something new. Among many other things, I have to know and understand the natural history, native habitat, dietary and enrichment needs of the animals I care for. As zookeepers, we have to understand the natural behaviors and patterns of our animals to better provide them with everything they need to live happy and healthy lives. That means getting to know the day-to-day routines of hundreds of animals, needless to say there’s always something to do! When visiting the Zoo, you may find me nurturing and enriching the Galapagos tortoises, or see my hands dipping in and out of aquatic salamander habitats while making adjustments to their water quality needs.
Do you have a particular animal that you feel a closer bond with?
In general, reptiles and amphibians do not bond with their caretakers the same way that mammals do. Not to say we don’t love them, we just usually get completely fascinated by an entire species as opposed to one individual animal. However, there are a few exceptions. Anybody who has worked with me or spoken with me knows that Max, our large male Galapagos tortoise is my pride and joy. Galapagos tortoises are one of few reptiles that can recognize individual faces and form bonds with certain people. When I started at the Zoo, Max was usually hesitant to interact with his caretakers for anything except food. In working closely with him every day and at his tortoise-style pace, he grew to trust me a great deal. Now, he loves his daily showers and scratches and will come charging to see what goodies I have for him whenever I’m in the yard or even on the other side of the fence. Everybody knows I’m his favorite and that has always made me feel special. He is always eager to see me and engage with me, and now I’m even training him to come inside when I ask him to.
What's your favorite memory been?
If I had to nail down one specific memory it would be my most recent, month long conservation expedition to Ecuador. Not only do I get to share the Zoo’s conservation mission every day here in Oklahoma, but I also get to live it and pursue it first-hand on an international level. It’s one thing to share knowledge and experiences with guests and peers, but another to get to physically live in the jungle working to save the animals that I love.
What inspired you to pursue this career?
I’ve had a lifelong obsession with reptiles and amphibians. Ever since I was a child, I have been enthralled with the lifestyles and habitats of many species. There is so much diversity among these incredible animals and I wanted to see and learn about all of them. In college and after graduating, I had the opportunity to venture all across South America studying poison frogs. These experiences helped spark a passion in me for the research, conservation and protection of endangered species. Luckily for me, while working at the Zoo, I get to work hands-on caring for the animals I’m passionate about, and I also get to stay involved in conservation efforts – both the Zoo’s and my own. I’m constantly immersed in all things reptiles and am presented with abundant opportunities to pursue my interests. I couldn’t imagine a career path more suitable for someone like myself.
What cause are you most passionate about?
It’s so hard to pick just one, but I am the most passionate about saving the world’s amphibians. Amphibians all over the planet are in a state of crisis, they are disappearing at an alarming rate largely due to habitat destruction, global warming and a deadly fungal disease called Chytridiomycosis. The most unsettling aspect of this extinction process is that amphibians are indicator species, meaning that their success (or lack-there-of) indicates the well-being of their entire ecosystem. One can safely assume that if frogs are disappearing worldwide, many other species are soon to follow. It’s an incredibly overwhelming problem to be solved, but I very much hope to see and work towards progress in my lifetime.
What is your favorite conservation program that the Zoo partakes in?
I may be a little biased, but my favorite program is one in which I’m heavily involved. For years the Zoo has sponsored Jatun Sacha, a conservation foundation based in Quito, Ecuador. They work through their five reserves to protect Ecuador’s vast biodiversity across the entire country (Amazon Rainforest, Cloud Forest, Coastal, and The Galapagos Islands). I have become heavily involved with them over my tenure here and even started my own amphibian conservation projects in two of their five reserves. Our projects focus on understanding amphibian population decline and trying our best to stop, slow or improve the current trend. The Zoo has now sponsored me on more than one occasion to work on my projects in Ecuador and, hopefully, with continued support, we can help to address the global decline of amphibians in a positive way.
– Josh Lucas, reptile and amphibian zookeeper