A Trip to the Zoo with Animal Helpers: Meet Turtle Back Zoo Keeper Erica Mueller

turtleback zoo erica What animals do you care for at the zoo? Are there babies and adults?

I take care of our jaguars, cougars, black bears, wolves, leopards, red panda, foxes, and groundhog. Right now there are only adult animals but we hope to have some babies in the future from some of our cats!

How long have you been a keeper?

I have been a keeper for about 6 years.


What is your favorite part of your job? Which aspects are most difficult?

 My favorite part of the job is getting to work with some of the coolest animals! I really love taking care of our cats and wolves especially but I enjoy taking care of all of the animals. I also like to talk with zoo visitors about our animals and how that species lives in the wild. One of the more difficult things about being a zoo keeper is that it is a very physical job, which can be very tiring, but getting to work with these animals makes it all worth it!

Please talk a little about your training (how you became a keeper) to help our young readers understand the process.

I have a college degree in Biology. A lot of zoos require that their animal keepers have a college degree in a life science. During college I volunteered with a place that takes in, cares for, and releases all kinds of birds. After this, I saw a job opening at a zoo in New Jersey. I applied for this job and got it. At my first zoo job I got a lot of experience with all kinds of animals. When I started working at Turtle Back Zoo, where I am a keeper now, I worked with all of the animals. I really liked working with the carnivores. When the zoo added jaguars and snow leopards, as well as a brand new cat building, they needed another keeper to help take care of all the new animals. Now I help to take care of our carnivore collection every day.
Please provide details on working with the animals under your care, including socializing, feeding, and enrichment. Do you create toys and enrichment items for the animals? If so, what are they?

All of our animals were born in a zoo so they are used to humans in their lives. Our cougars and wolves were hand-raised since they were very young. This does not mean that they are tame, like a pet dog or cat, but we are able to work with them more easily since they were introduced to keepers at a young age.

Most of our animals eat meat, and we feed them once a day. Sometimes if we are doing training they get a little part of their diet earlier in the day as we use their food as a reward. Our bears eat omnivore chow, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Once in a while our bears get fish, which they really love as a treat. Our red panda eats bamboo, leaf-eater biscuits, and grapes, apple, and pear. Our groundhog eats rodent chow, and fruits and vegetables.

Enrichment is a really important thing that we do for all of our animals. Most of them get some kind of enrichment every day. There are lots of things that we can do for enrichment, including scents, puzzle feeders, toys, different foods, and even TV and music. Our wolves love rolling on the ground where we put down perfume or spices, and the bears usually have fun trying to get grapes out of a ball-shaped puzzle feeder.

Some of the best enrichment comes from things that we create ourselves. Our cougars and jaguars love pouncing on and tearing up cardboard box “animals” that we put together from different sized boxes and paper towel rolls.


Do any of the animals’ behaviors make you laugh out loud? If so, what are they?

Our male cougar is very vocal, and it is almost like he is trying to talk. Sometimes I think he is trying to have a conversation with me, and it makes me laugh a lot.

How do you work with other zoo staff, including vets?

At the zoo we need to work with lots of different people and departments. We need to work closely with the zoo director, curator, and supervisor. Wehelp out other keepers who work in different sections, such as birds and reptiles, if they need a hand. The horticulture department helps us determineturtleback zoo erica2 what trees and vegetation can go in and around our exhibits. The maintenance team helps us when we need a repair and can use heavy-duty equipment to move things such as large tree limbs. We work very closely with our vet and vet-tech. Our observations greatly help them in determining possible treatment for an animal.


What behaviors and cues do you observe to help gauge the animals’ physical and mental health?

Each animal is different, so we get to know what is normal for each one. Any change in personality or behavior may be an indication that something may be going on. In all of our animals, we make sure that they are indicating that they are relaxed and comfortable in their environment. Loss of appetite, change in weight, and change in personality are some of the cues that we look at when gauging an animal’s physical and mental health.


Do you have pets at home?

Yes! I have a beagle, and an orange tabby cat.


For our young readers who would love to work at the zoo, how would you suggest they get started?

Work towards going to college for a life science, such as biology or zoology. Then, VOLUNTEER!! Most of the zookeepers I know, including myself, started out volunteering at places before becoming a paid zookeeper. Good places to start volunteering include animal shelters and wild animal rehabilitation and rescue centers. In high school, I volunteered at an animal shelter where I helped socialize cats and kittens for adoption.  In college, I volunteered at a bird rehabilitation center, where I helped take care of injured hawks, ducks, and songbirds.

To learn more about the Turtle Back Zoo visit their website, or for more information on Animal Helpers: Zoos check out the book homepage.



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