Zookeeper Profile: Darby Thackerson

Darby Thackerson, sea lions caretaker

During this year’s National Zoo Keeper Week (NZKW), the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is expressing its appreciation for all of its hardworking animal caretakers and highlighting six exceptional individuals who have dedicated their lives to caring for its animal family.

NZKW focuses on the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and vanishing habitats via conservation messages created by zoos and aquariums, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Animal caretakers have an essential role as educators and wildlife ambassadors.

The 2019 NZKW theme, ‘Keeping it Real’, inspired six Q&A sessions the Zoo’s six animal caretakers! Follow along this week as we introduce you to Alicia Snellen, life support technician; Darby Thackerson, marine mammal trainer; Stephany Hernandez, herpetologist; Rachel Sides, carnivore caretakers; Jessica Quinnett, hoofstock caretaker; and Whitney Willis, bird caretaker.

Next up is marine mammal trainer, Darby Thackerson!

How long have you worked at the OKC Zoo?

I have been at the OKC Zoo for about a year and a half.

When did you know you wanted to work with animals?

I decided I wanted to work as a marine mammal trainer when I was 8 years old, watching my first Shamu Show at SeaWorld Orlando. My parents were incredibly supportive of that little girl and continued to support me growing up - all the way through college to earning my job.

What is your favorite part about being a zookeeper?

Being a zookeeper is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get!  Our days are extremely fluid and are always changing, everything from daily sessions, presentations and cleaning, to meet and greets, projects and even the animals’ behavior has an impact on how the days goes.

What is a fun fact about you or fun animal story you’d like to share?

Outside of work, I love spending time outside, hiking, camping and trail running. In March, I ran my first 50-mile Ultra marathon through the slot canyons that surround the Grand Canyon.

What do most people not know about zookeepers?

Zoo keeping is an extremely competitive field! There are a lot of people who want to be zookeepers, not very many jobs and very low turnover. We go to college and receive at least a bachelor’s degree, intern and volunteer, on top of many other qualifications such as scuba certifications and swimming skills. Many facilities require marine mammal trainers to pass a rigorous swim test before they even get to interview.

Being a zookeeper means… fill in the blank!

Forever finding fish scales on you and everything you own, no matter how many showers you take. 

Do you have a favorite animal that you care for?

My favorite animal at the Zoo is actually not actually a marine mammal, she is a Chuckwalla, and you can find her in the Island Life building. 

What has been your most memorable moment while working at the OKC Zoo?

I am lucky enough to have a job where I experience memorable moments every single day; but, the day I got a call offering me the job at the OKC Zoo will forever be one of the best moments of my life. Getting this job meant I was finally going to live my dream, and had finally “made it” as a marine mammal trainer.

What do you enjoy most about working at the OKC Zoo?

The work environment at the OKC Zoo is unlike any other I’ve experienced. The OKC Zoo was the first facility I interned at, and throughout the 5 years I was away, I always found myself comparing every place to here.

Not many people get to go to work every day and do something they love, let alone work with people they love! My coworkers are some of my best friends, and it’s not every day you get to be surrounded by like-minded people who share the same goals and aspirations who support and love each other every step of the way.

What is your favorite conservation project that the Zoo supports?

The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is a conservation project and organization that I have a lot of passion for. They support and educate consumers about the palm oil industry, the palm oil crisis and the importance of choosing sustainable palm oil. The non-sustainable palm oil industry is rapidly deforesting to build palm plantations which is wreaking havoc on the delicately balanced ecosystems, and as a result, placing many species on the endangered/threatened species list. Palm oil is found in so many of the everyday products we use and foods we consume. By educating our guests on how easy it is to make the shift to sustainable palm oil products, we are able to make a huge impact on the palm oil crisis as a whole. 

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