Anne Knapp liked science when she was a kid, but she always wanted to be a dancer or an actor. She trained in dancing and theater until college, where she started as a theater major at Central Michigan University. After some time, though, Anne decided that she should “really get a degree in something that wasn’t theater,” even though she “could still do theater if I wanted to.” She knew she was interested in nature, so she changed her major to biology.
A life-changing moment happened when Knapp, who was still in college but thinking about training to be a nurse, went to a career fair and picked up a brochure about careers for people with science degrees. At the bottom of the alphabetical list was “zookeeper.” “Oh my gosh,” she thought, “that’s way more interesting than [treating] humans.” After finishing her biology degree, she started volunteering at a local zoo and Knapp continues to work in zookeeping today.
The job of a zookeeper—or of a manager of other zookeepers, which Anne now is—is becoming “more and more scientific,” she says. You might expect that a zookeeper would have to study zoology (the science of animals), but today’s zookeepers also play the roles of nutritionists and behavioral specialists, so they study nutrition and psychology as well. They make sure that the animals live in suitable environments, that they’re fed well and, as best they can, that they’re content (happy). Zookeepers “also have to be creative,” Knapp says, to figure out how best to provide for the animals while letting people get close to them.
The day-to-day life of a zookeeper is full of precise measurements and simple math. Knapp is responsible for the diets of 600 different animals. Those diets change week by week, depending on the animals’ health and the observations of the zookeepers who take care of them.
All the animals in a zoo get very precise amounts of food from their keepers, and for different reasons the keepers may recommend an increase or decrease to the overall amount of food that an animal gets. Anne takes that amount (usually a percent) and translates it into the precise amount of each ingredient that goes into the food for each animal. If a monkey had been eating 400 grams of bananas every day, for instance, an increase of 10% would mean adding 0.10 x 400 = 40 extra grams of banana per day. Similarly, a keeper might decrease a lion’s food in the summer, when the heat has the lion sleeping more and eating less.
Another way that math comes into the life of a zookeeper is in deciding how much space is appropriate for individual species. Knapp says that it’s common for humans to only look at the size of the bottom of an enclosure—its area, measured in two dimensions—when thinking about how big it is. But “snow leopards live vertically, not horizontally.” To many animals, what matters isn’t the area of the floor of an enclosure but the three-dimensional volume of the whole enclosure. Figuring out how much volume an enclosure has is a geometry problem with an answer that could make a snow leopard very happy.
Working to make animals happy is not entirely a scientific process. Sometimes Knapp makes lucky discoveries that give her insight into the minds of the animals she takes care of. An elephant, for instance, once grabbed the food bucket out of Knapp’s hand and ran across the enclosure to eat somewhere quite different from her normal spot. Anne interpreted this to mean that the elephant wanted to be able to choose where she ate, so from then on she just gave her the bucket and let her choose her own routine, instead of trying to pick a place for eating. Other animals also have the opportunity to make choices: Knapp might open up multiple doors in their enclosures, letting them choose which other animals they want to spend their time with.
In the rare event that an animal escapes, Knapp plays a key role in their recovery. If an animal needs to be tranquilized, either to recapture it or just because it needs to be given medical treatment, the veterinary team considers its species and its weight to calculate exactly how much tranquilizer should be used. With the right dose, the animal will fall asleep but won’t be hurt.
Knapp’s precise calculations ensure that all of the animals under her care get the right diet and conditions they need to stay healthy and content; and her caring and insight keep them happy. The nature shows that she watched as a child are much like the work she now does every day—not bad for someone who didn’t start college as a science major. It’s never too late to get into science.