We’ve enjoyed sharing zookeeper highlights all week-long in honor of National #ZookeeperWeek – taking place July 16 through July 22! Keeper Pace is the last (but not least) zookeeper highlight of the week! Pace cares for the Zoo’s great apes.
How long have you worked at the Zoo?
I started working at the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2011 in the hoofstock department. I loved working with the Red river hogs and the okapi. When I first moved to Oklahoma City, I volunteered in the Great EscApe department. I think my love of primates began growing during those few months. When a position opened in the ape department 4-and-a-half years ago, I jumped at the chance to work there. Now, I couldn't imagine a day without hearing a gorilla grumble or chimpanzee laugh while at work!
What is a typical day like in your position?
There's never a typical day in the Great EscApe department. However, every day, our team cleans, provides enrichment and prepares diets for the animals in our care. Our days are ever-changing and always exciting but I definitely have a favorite part of every day – training sessions. There is a set group of animals I work with to train husbandry behaviors. This could include working with Mikella on opening her mouth for our vet team to check her teeth, working on voluntary blood draw with Elok or working with Cindy to present her foot to me for examination. All of our training is done for the benefit of the animals and allows them to have a choice to participate with their health care!
Do you have a particular animal that you feel a closer bond with?
All of the animals I care for have very different personalities, so it's difficult to even begin picking a favorite species, let alone a favorite individual. But I am always drawn to one animal in particular, and I think most Zoo guests feel the same way—Elok! Our male Sumatran orangutan, Elok, is a character and has such a fun personality. He loves to train and learn new things. He picks up behaviors really quickly and keeps me on my toes as he learns new behaviors.
What's your favorite memory been?
One of my favorite memories is also my toughest to date. Two years ago, our gorilla Ndjole had a baby girl named Kamina. Due to circumstances out of our team's control, Ndjole failed to take care of Kamina. My amazing coworkers and the Zoo's vet team quickly sprung into action to ensure that Kamina was healthy and attempted to reintroduce her to Ndjole over the next few days and weeks. After an unsuccessful reintroduction, our Zoo talked with the Gorilla Species Survival Plan members and determined that Kamina would need to find a surrogate mother at another facility for her overall well-being. For the first few months of her life, our team hand-raised her until it became time to send Kamina to her surrogate mom. Being a surrogate gorilla mom, myself, for those first few months was one of the best experiences in my life. During that period of time, I wore a special, gorilla vest while I bottle fed and cared for her so that she would cling to the fleece like she would her mother. When the time came for her to go, it was extremely bittersweet for our team. However, we knew she needed a gorilla family of her own. Today, Kamina lives at the Columbus Zoo, and I know she has amazing keepers and a family that she thrives in. We see pictures and hear stories of her doing well in Columbus, so it makes all of the moments we spent caring for worth it!
What inspired you to pursue this career?
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to walk to the bayou with my Opa and watch the frogs, turtles and crawfish swim. I feel that my Opa sparked a respect for nature in me – starting me down my path to becoming a zookeeper. I am from Houston, Texas, so I always enjoyed visiting the Zoo and watching the giraffes. During high school, I was given the opportunity to volunteer in the giraffe department. From that experience, I realized that caring for animals was the career for me! I remember cleaning the giraffe floor while all of the giraffes stood around and watched me. Suddenly, the male giraffe of the herd, Kiva, leaned over and took a big sniff of my head and sweatshirt. He was my favorite animal while volunteering and is likely the reason why I started my career in the hoofstock department with giraffes! While my Opa sparked my love of animals and nature, Kiva the giraffe definitely sealed the deal in my path as a zookeeper.
Why do you feel that Zoos are important?
I think Zoos are important because of the direct influence and impact they have on the guests who visit. The Oklahoma City Zoo is great because, as animal care professionals, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and improve.
For example, the caretakers of the Great EscApe department regularly attend conferences to further our knowledge and make connections with other primate keepers. We are always learning new enrichment projects and training practices to make our animals’ lives better.
People come to the Zoo to see animals but they leave with new knowledge of conservation stories and issues animals are facing in the wild. Education has the power to ignite passion in an individual – causing them to change their habits such as choosing to recycle their cell phone for wild gorillas or changing to an orangutan-friendly brands when grocery shopping. Having a connection with just one Zoo animal can have a huge impact on someone – just ask Kiva the giraffe!
What is your favorite conservation program that the Zoo partakes in?
My favorite conservation program would is the Zoo’s Round up for Conservation program. Every day at the Zoo, guests are given the opportunity to round up their Zoo purchases to the nearest dollar. The Zoo uses the money raised from our guest's small change to fund conservation projects around the world. Recently, we used Round up for Conservation funds to partner with the Rainforest Trust to purchase protected land in the rainforests of Sumatra. We were able to purchase over 200,000 acres of critical land for Sumatran orangutans, Asian elephants, clouded leopards and more. Due to the palm oil crisis, these habitats are decreasing, so protecting what is left is crucial for their species to survive.
The Zoo recently joined the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and is committed to promoting the purchase of sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil is palm oil that has been produced without destroying orangutan habitat. The Oklahoma City Zoo is taking an active role in fighting for Asian wildlife! One topic I constantly educate our guests about during daily keeper chats is how they can help by simply switching to sustainable brands when shopping. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has phenominal mobile application, which assists shoppers by giving them the option to search a particular item to find out if it is orangutan friendly. It’s an easy thing to do at home that has a major impact in Sumatra!
– Pace Frank, Great EscApe zookeeper