GL: What’s a typical day for you?
Erin: We come in at 6:30 a.m. and we check on all the animals, make sure everyone looks OK, make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be. And then if tigers are on habitat from overnight, we bring them in. Then we clean the habitat, so pick up, clean the windows, just make sure the habitats look nice. And next we make our plan, what group of tigers we want, and what habitat, who are they going to play tug of war with today, how many times are we going to feed them.
We can give the tigers all their food at one time or we can break it into meals, and then we’ll shift out which takes like four to five keepers. We have to call people from orangutans to help us out, we call our supervisors to help us out, 'cause we want to make sure we’re safe. So we have two people in the house so that we’re always telling someone what we’re doing and communicate with them a lot. After we shift our tigers out, then we clean our house and make sure it smells good. If we have a tour usually we have daily tour, so the rest of the day after that is doing keeper talks, doing tours in the house, just stuff like that. Any projects that we have going on, and training. So that’s kind of our day, it’s very busy.
GL: Would you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got here?
Erin: I always wanted to work with animals ever since I could remember. I have a biology degree. After college I started at Sea World, and I worked in the education department there. And then, kind of like at Busch Gardens, they have an animal ambassador team that's much smaller, but we do the penguin touches. So if you take the tours, you get to touch the penguin, so we’re kind of the person that does that.
I really enjoyed that. I liked working with the animals, kind of more than doing the educational side of it. I wanted to get into that more, and they had positions open at Busch Gardens, so I was able to transfer over which was really nice and I started in our bird/reptile department for a year and then I worked over in the Edge of Africa with the lions and hyenas and hippos. And then this area Jungala (part of Busch Garden's park) wasn’t built yet, it just opened last year. When they were opening it, they took keepers from all different areas, and mixed us, so then I came over and worked for that.
We feel like we have the best animals over here. Tigers. This is a really neat area to work with these animals. You can see just some of his basic things that he knows. Some of the tigers are really stubborn and they’ll test you if you’re a newer keeper, they won’t do something for you, to kind of see if you will reward them anyway. We just use the word “OK” as a signal that they did a good job and that they’re going to get the food. So we do training with them, if they’re in the house we do it a lot more, when they’re on the habitat, really the only place is that meshed wall, where we can ask for behaviors like this..it’s a little bit harder on the habitats.
GL: What classes or things did you do to help you choose to work here?
Erin: We pretty much just say a science background. I have a plain old straight biology background. And when I first was going to school, I thought I wanted to do marine biology, so I tried to take a lot of marine classes. Then when I was working at Sea World, I was like I don’t swim well, I don’t think I’m going to pass the swim test. So that’s why I went to more land animals, it’s true, the truth comes out! It is hard! You think in your head, it’s just swimming, but it’s physically draining. You have to be able to free dive down in a wet suit, and it’s really hard, and I’m not that good of a swimmer.
So, you don’t have to do that. Just different, just very different, a lot of the same training, very different working with them. And since I started working in the education department, I really got my guest speaking skills, I worked on that, and then your management gets to know you, even if you’re not in the animal area, they hear about you, so then it’s easier to transfer to an animal area. So what happened for me was, I knew since I worked with the penguins, I knew one of the supervisors and he called the supervisor at Busch Gardens and said I know of this girl, she’s a good worker, I think you should hire her, so I got lucky. That’s how I got my job. It was very hard though, it’s very competitive. Because I didn’t have animal experience before working at Sea World, so we suggest if you’re interested in a career with animals, volunteer, do anything you can to get experience. Even if it’s not with a tiger, they’re basically large cats, that you have to respect.
Wanna see these fierce felines face-to-face? Head to Busch Gardens Tampa to find out more!
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Photos by Cait Rohan