An interview with a zookeeper from the National Zoo

"I grew up on a farm; we always had a ton of pets," says zookeeper Kenton Kerns. In his hands is the tenrec Pandora. (Mehgan Murphy/smithsonian Institution)
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Anyone with a pet knows that taking care of an animal is a lot of work -- but the tradeoff is you have a loving animal to play with and enjoy. A zookeeper's chores are a lot more involved than, say, scooping kitty litter, but they also get the reward of being with the animals.

In honor of National Zookeeper Week, KidsPost's Margaret Webb Pressler went behind the scenes at the National Zoo's Small Mammal House to meet Kenton Kerns, one of seven zookeepers who take care of the tamarins, porcupines, naked mole rats and about 27 other small mammal species at the zoo. Kerns, 25, talked about his life as a zookeeper, and as he spoke he held in his hands a tiny tenrec named Pandora. Tenrecs are cute, spiny mammals found in Madagascar and parts of Africa. Pandora promptly fell asleep in his hands.


Yeah, she just passed out. She spreads her body out flat to absorb the heat from my hand. You don't intend to bond so quickly with one particular animal, but you can't help it.

Did you always want to be a zookeeper?

I grew up on a farm; we always had a ton of pets. And my parents were definitely animal lovers. I always said I wanted to do something with animals, but I didn't know what that would mean. . . . I studied biology at American University. I didn't know if I wanted to go into research or what. So I started volunteering at the zoo. Then a position opened up.

What's a typical day for you like?

With 100 animals, there's always something going on with one of them. I get here just before 6:30 [in the morning] and walk around the exhibit to make sure the animals look good. . . . Then we move on to start the a.m. feeding and cleaning, give medicine to the animals that are being medicated. . . . [That takes about] two to four hours. Then we go downstairs and prepare their food for the next day. From 1 to 3, it's p.m. feeding and medication. . . . At 2 p.m. every day, we do a "Meet a Mammal" presentation. In addition to that, we're doing . . . stuff to keep the animals occupied, to keep them entertained.

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