Zookeepers – Dedicated to the Very End

SF Teaching Zoo’s Maddie with Leo.

November 3, 2021 – One conversation with a zookeeper and you quickly learn that animal caretakers are some of the most compassionate, dedicated individuals you’ll ever meet. Staff and instructors at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo witness the Zoo Animal Technology students’ devotion to the animals daily.

In 2018, three little squirrel monkeys came to live at the SF Teaching Zoo. Within a year, Leo, a male in his early 20s, was diagnosed with spondylosis (degeneration of the spine). Under the direction of staff, zookeepers began giving him medication to keep him comfortable. Eventually, he needed additional nutrition, so zookeepers dedicated their own time in between classes to offer high calorie foods.

Maddie is a fourth-semester zookeeper who started working with the squirrel monkeys in the summer.  She continuously volunteered her time to ensure Leo consistently accepted his offerings and over time built a relationship with him. For all of her efforts, staff asked her to start training him. Through trust and positive reinforcement, Maddie was able to train Leo to step up onto a scale for weekly weights and walk into a kennel. These behaviors made it possible to closely monitor his health without causing him stress. Maddie recalls a very special moment she had early on in their training, “I was working on getting him comfortable with walking into a crate on his own, I would spend hours with him waiting for him to finally go in. Then there was one day he just decided that it was not scary anymore and he walked in right away all on his own. I remember trying so hard not to jump for joy and scare him because I was so proud of him.”

Over this last year, staff and zookeepers monitored Leo closely, assessing his quality of life. Even in his geriatric age, Leo was climbing branches and interacting with enrichment. But sadly zoo staff began to see his energy decline, rapid weight loss and saw him losing his balance. The difficult decision was made to humanely euthanize Leo. Vets from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine came to the zoo so keepers could say goodbye. Many keepers shared fond memories of Leo. Maddie was by his side in his final moments. “Leo has made such an impact on me as a zookeeper. He brought me so much joy every day and made me so confident of my skills as a zookeeper. Most of all he taught me how important every animal is no matter how small or old they are, they are all of equal importance and deserve the best care possible. Leo touched the lives of many keepers and has left a lasting impact on not only myself but all those who have met and got the amazing opportunity to work with him.”

Next time you visit us, our zookeepers would love to share their experiences and passion for their chosen career with you.