By Shawn Clubb
Suburban Journals
July 28, 2009

When Lucia the cheetah gave birth at the Saint Louis Zoo, Carrie Felsher had the day off.

Felsher, a keeper in the carnivore unit, spent the day at work anyway.

"I wanted to be part of it," said Felsher, 43, of Oakville. "It's a lifestyle being a zookeeper. It's a commitment that requires the expense of a lot of off time."

In 2007, Congress proclaimed the third week in July to be National Zookeeper Week in recognition of the role zookeepers play in animal conservation.

The Saint Louis Zoo often holds keeper chats to allow keepers to talk to visitors about the animals in their care. In observance of the week, the zoo held these chats throughout the day on July 23, while members of the St. Louis chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers talked about zookeeping and their organization.

"The keepers are the first line of defense in taking care of animals," said Jack Grisham, vice president of animal collections at the zoo. "They do such a fantastic job. The vets rely on them. The curators rely on them."

The keepers spend a lot of time with the animals and know when something is wrong, Grisham said. They know when an animal stops feeding. They know when a newborn won't nurse from its mother. Felsher remembers visiting zoos as a child near the military posts where her father was stationed. She wanted to be a zookeeper from early on, but first she traveled the world as a flight attendant. She then took a job at the Saint Louis Zoo as an assistant to the librarian.

Once Felsher had her foot in the door, she received an internship working with birds at the zoo. She has now been a keeper for 14 years. She now works with carnivores including hyenas, big cats, bears, sea lions and her favorite, cheetahs.

"I've always wanted to work with cheetahs," she said. "This is a dream realized. They are an endangered animal and I can play a role in their conservation."

Mylisa Whipple is similarly devoted to her job as a keeper. She works with primates and is fascinated by the importance they put on family and socializing.

Whipple has trained primates using positive reinforcement. She worked with a diabetic baboon that needed his blood sugar tested twice a day. He also needed insulin injections. She trained him to let her stick him with the needle.

"You're literally building a relationship with the animal and you're communicating with them," said Whipple, 30, of Affton. Ever since she was a young girl, Whipple has loved animals, loved being outside and loved nature. She wanted to work closely with animals, be involved in conservation and educate people about animals.

Whipple began working five years ago as a keeper at the zoo. She has worked with primates for four and a half years.

During keeper talks, Felsher and Whipple educate people about the animals and about conservation. Some of the species they discuss - cheetahs and lemurs - are among the endangered species the zoo is working to conserve through its Wildcare Institute.

Felsher uses a headset to narrate as cheetahs chase a cloth being pulled at high speed through a lure course in the cheetah viewing area at The River's Edge. The course is an enrichment activity developed to let cheetahs do what they like to do - run, stalk and pounce.

Whipple has plenty of opportunity to talk about lemurs. Many children ask about them after watching "Madagascar," an animated film featuring a ring-tailed lemur as king of the lemurs.

"It draws interest," she said. "It may draw them into trying to help conserve the animals."

Dedication doesn't begin to describe the effort keepers put into caring for the animals, developing enrichment activities and educating the public, Grisham said. Almost all of the zoo's keepers will come in early, stay late, stay through inclement weather, come in on their days off and gladly engage the public in discussing the animals.

"The keepers want to be involved," Grisham said. "They want to make that difference."

Republished with the permission of the Suburban Journals.
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