FarmHER: Exploring a different type of livestock at the Blank Park Zoo
Awhile back, somewhere along this FarmHer journey I became connected to a few women who worked in conservation at our local zoo. Our connection started out in discussing conservation and the important role that farmers and FarmHers play in that, and specifically as it relates to pollinators.
In getting to know the women further, I realized they were just FarmHers dressed in ZooKeepHers clothing! It turns out that at The Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, the overwhelming majority of people who care for the animals are women and many of them have not only agriculture backgrounds, but also animal science or similarly focused degrees.
It quickly became clear to me that, no different from a woman who raises cattle or cares for pigs or sheep, these women have a love for the animals and for conservation and there were some stories that needed to be told! So, I made a trip to the zoo and visited a different type of barn!
It was early winter but the cold had already arrived in Iowa. Just as many farm animals are, the zoo animals were either out at pasture if the cold was their thing, or tucked away safe and sound in their barns or buildings.
My visit to the women of the zoo started with Shannon, the director of animal care. Shannon started out her career in the military before being at the zoo. She has worked her way up over the years and as we talked it was clear that the care and well-being of the animals was first and foremost of importance for her. We then set out to see the animals spread around the rest of the zoo and what an experience it was!
Our first stop was at the zoo kitchen where a team works daily to put together the special diets for each species at the zoo. From hundreds of pounds of fruits and veggies to bags of feed that look like they belong in another other Iowa barn, the animals each get a diet that is healthy and specific just for them.
Val, who is in charge of that area grew up on a farm and has always had a love of animals. She has worked in many roles around the zoo before landing here as the FeedHer of the animals!
LauraLyn is in charge of the Giraffes, the tallest hoofstock I have ever been around. We ventured back into the new barn and all I could see as I looked out in front of me were feet! But, just look up and there they were towering over me. LauraLyn started her second career at the zoo after realizing she wanted to work with animals. It was clear that she has a deep care and concern for the animals in her care and a mutual respect coming from them.
She showed me how to feed the animals with their LONG black tongues (so their tongues don’t get sunburnt while eating) and that was an experience I will never forget. From the gentle animal towering down over you to it’s tongue swiftly grasping the fruit out of my hand, it was just plain...weird! But, not so different from feeding a cow or letting a calf suck on my fingers back at that dairy in Maine!
We ventured inside to the “rainforest” and over to the huge aquarium wall where I found Dana. One of the youngest people I met at the zoo, and again, a young woman from Iowa with a love of caring for animals, she is in charge of the water-based life at the zoo.
Today she was suited up in a wetsuit, cleaning out the inside of the tank and interacting with the fish...what a cool job! Once she was done she took a few minutes to introduce me to the catfish, a native fish to Iowa and showed off their painting skills. Yes, I said painting. All of the ZooKeepHers have enrichment exercises they do with the animals in their care and the fish are no different. She set up a bit of feed on one end of the paintbrush and canvas and paint on the other and off they went!
The rest of the day included quick stops at the seals and sea lions, and one very giant and very old tortoise named Barnaby...who happens to be the first resident of the Zoo! All in all, no matter what type of animal, no matter what the barn looked like, no matter what they were eating, the animals and livestock at the zoo are no different than any farm animal around. The women caring for them are no different either. They care deeply about the animals at the zoo and only want the best for them when it comes to health, safety and sustainability of their species. Here’s to the ZooKeepHers!