Snag That Dream Job: I with great apes!

Off to Busch Garden's Great Ape Domain
Photo by Cait Rohan

What do you wanna be when you grow up? GL recently had the chance to go to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove in Florida to interview peeps with some of the most coveted jobs in the world (dolphin trainers, roller coaster engineers, animal pathologists and more!).

Find out how they got started and how YOU could score one of these coveted careers someday.

Gorillas are big, scary apes, right? After meeting cute baby gorilla Bolingo and his mama I basically fell in love. Bolingo—who's three-years-old—acted like any human baby would. He slapped his mom's butt (which was hilarious!), he ran around the habitat and he tumbled around the hills—such a ham (and cutie pie!).

I met Bolingo at Busch Garden's Myombe Reserve. Their Great Ape Domain (home of Bolingo and pals) was filled with lush green grass, waterfalls and huge rocks. Watching the regal 400-pound (ahh!) animals mozy around the grounds (or in Bolingo's case, run, jump and play!) was breathtaking. I felt just like I was in Africa.

So how does someone get to work with these amazing animals? I got to interview animal care expert Kris Arnold about her work with great apes. Interestingly enough Kris got her start in human resources (that's working with peeps and managing them). She eventually decided to switch from humans to apes and has been happy with her decision ever since. Here's what she had to say.

It's Bolingo!
Photo by Cait Rohan

Kris told me all I wanted to know and more about gorillas. Love these big fuzzy guys? Heart animals? Wanna feel like you're on safari every day? This job might be right for you!

GL: Can you tell us about your background, how you got into working with gorillas, things you’ve done with the gorillas?


Kris: Well I have been here for eight years, before that I worked for two years at a different zoo. I used to work in human resources and it just didn’t always satisfy me. On my days off I began volunteering at the zoo and then after about four months I decided absolutely, zookeeping is for me. I left behind my human resources career, everything I had ever known and started zookeeping and then I decided I wanted to work with great apes.

GL: Why did you choose gorillas?

Kris: I was fascinated by their intelligence, some of the things they have to face in the wild and trying to figure out how I could actually help. This is a fun place to work. Everybody you meet is typically here to have fun. That to me is just wonderful.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness Bolingo’s birth, which we had to do via Cesarean delivery, because his mom developed some complications. So, to be there, to witness that and then to help raise him for a few days while his mom recovered and then to be able to actually successfully get him back to his mom was our ultimate goal. These guys learn a lot from their mother. They do a lot of watching, like, "OK that’s how mom get’s something out of it. That’s how mom cracks the coconut." That’s how they learn. So it's best for them to be raised by their parents. To be able to get him back, we do a lot of interactions.

To be able to come this close to these guys is so magnificent. To reach out, give our presentations, to talk about the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens conservation fund. [It's also great to] talk about what the fund has done for gorillas in the wild as well as other animals that are in the wild that are in danger.

GL: What does a typical day involve?

Kris: Typically at 6:30 in the morning, we have our morning meeting. Then we come over to feed the gorillas or the chimps and move on to what our day has planned as. We walk in, we check on the littler animals, say good morning to everybody, make sure everybody’s getting up, moving about, nothing’s happened overnight. Then we’ll ask them to come into their bedrooms and we’ll close them down in their bedroom and start prepping the big large day room that they have. It’s a huge room that we fill with hay and that has toys in it, things like that for them to play with.

But we have to clean this room up from the night before, from the day before, so we put on our protective clothing, our protective gloves that protect us from getting anything that they may have. We also wear masks just in case anything splashes back when we are hosing. And we start cleaning. Then we typically will do a training session with them. It can be as simple as just sitting down and having fun. Let’s play. It’s not all about work here. These guys are extremely food-motivated animals and they like to play and they like to interact with their keepers, so it’s just as important to spend time with them just sitting there.

Or it can be working on a cardiac ultrasound on our males or our females. Or they can get shots, three times a month, so you sedate them, give them the injection, they are all trained for things like that. It’s not a big deal for them, we’ve worked them through this for years and convinced them, like hey this is better for you. Yeah, it’s a little difficult sometimes convincing 400-pound gorillas that this is gonna help you, but we use positive reinforcement here. If they choose not to come over and interact with you when you start your training session, that’s their choice. So it’s all you do positively, we reward good behaviors.

Learning from mama
Photo by Cait Rohan
GL: What else do you do?

Kris: We hide their food around. We decide what toy we’re going to give them for the day. We decide how we’re going to present their food for the day, whether we’re going to put it in a bowl or whether we’re going to chop it up.  We also come out here in the habitat and we prep the habitat. We’ll pick up anything from the day before that was left. We’ll go throughout the park and we’ll cut vegetation because these guys live on plant material. They eat a lot of vegetation, they have 30 feet or more intestines than we do to help them process their diet, so we need to provide them every day with an edible source so we are trying to remain our habitat as nicely as possible.

If we didn't give them any other option they would tear down everything. They would climb the tree and rip down a branch of the Hong Kong orchid so we always give them an option. If you make it easier for them, they’re not going to be as willing to climb the tree. Bolingo does it for fun. The adults would definitely do it. So by us going out and cutting it, we do the same thing out here that we do in the house, we hide food around. There’s different places, like that rock there is designed to look like a rock but it’s actually a puzzle feeder, so you put the food in and the animals, it just gives them a little bit of a challenge instead of them just picking up an apple.

We come out through the day and we don’t have set schedules for them. Then we’ll bring them in usually we’ll do another session with them when we bring them in. We’ll play or relate with somebody  or it can be working on a behavior that we’re working on. And then they get fed again, and then its their bedtime.

GL: What advice would you give a young girl who is looking into a job like this?


Kris: A few things. Most important thing is to go to school. This is an extremely competitive field. Getting a degree in some type of animal science, whether you’re interested in behavior science, zoology, biology—any of those.

Start volunteering as soon as you can even if you are in school and going to college classes, because you don’t always find out what the job is really like, how physically challenging it can be at times—it’s not all glamour.  By volunteering you’ll find out if this is really the job for you. Some days you’ll have to trim trees and mow grass and clean. It’s best to research it. And do research. That’s what I did before volunteering, that’s what actually led me into volunteering. I got on the computer and did a lot of research about jobs with animals.

GL: And what made you decide, like you said that once you started working, was there something specific that made you drawn toward gorillas?

Kris: I think they’re just fascinating. They are just so majestic. And they are critically endangered so that gives me the opportunity to educate my family, my children, friends, anyone I can come into contact with. They are just really amazing, all of the great apes. I actually love all of them. They all have very different personalities. So I like the little differences between each one, and when I came I wanted to work with all three. But gorillas became my little niche.

Wanna see Bolingo and his mom? Head to Busch Gardens Tampa to find out more!

BLOG IT OUT! Do you love gorillas? Just heart animals in general? What's your dream job?


by Cait Rohan | 2/1/2016