Written by: Danielle Yacobson
Not many high school students can say that they work at the zoo, except for junior Katherine Berry, that is. Since the summer of seventh grade, the animal lover has been volunteering at the San Francisco Zoo and racking up hundreds of community service hours while taking care of animals and hanging out with her fellow workers.
Having no pets of her own, Berry jumped at the opportunity to work with animals while she was in middle school after learning about a summer program at the San Francisco Zoo. In the beginning, her job mainly consisted of showing the animals to visitors and answering their questions. As she became more serious about her volunteering, Berry spent less time talking to the public and started working during the school year as a Junior Zoologist. Every other Saturday, she commutes to the San Francisco Zoo and works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the childrens’ section of the park with the smaller animals, from iguanas and baby alligators to eagles and possums. “Owls are one of my favorite animals,” Berry said. “There is this tiny owl named Darwin the size of my hand but with these huge eyes. He’s so adorable.”
According to Berry, many people expect that she spends all her time socializing with the animals. However, she acknowledges that about 60 percent of the job involves cleaning the animals and their enclosures. It is, however, easier said than done. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums sets specific regulations and procedures that describe how to clean the cages and which chemicals to use. This ensures the safest environment for the animals.
In addition, many of the animals are rescues and need special medical attention and treatment. Berry is in charge of making sure that each animal is responding well to its medication by performing regular health checks.
After the daily cleaning and health examinations, Berry and the other Junior Zoologists have an allocated chunk of time to interact with the animals. Before handling the animals, however, Junior Zoologists must be “tested-off” to make sure they are thoroughly educated on the creature they are dealing with. A trainer will sit down and go over a binder filled with facts about each animal, ranging from its medical history to its diet and mating habits. After memorizing all the facts and passing the test, the Junior Zoologists are able to take the animals out of their cages at any time to feed, examine and play with them.
After spending so much time at the zoo, it seems only natural that a strong bond develops between the workers and animals. “We name each animal that comes in, so after they get an adorable name you just get so attached to them, you can’t help but develop a bond,” Berry said. Each animal has its own personality, like a porcupine called Sassafrass, a possum named Lucy and a newt appropriately named Fig Newton.
Berry’s favorite thing about working at the zoo used to be interacting and taking care of all the animals. Now she enjoys spending time with all the diverse teens from around the Bay Area who are also interested in zoology. Berry has made a close-knit group of friends working at the zoo throughout her many years of volunteering. “We all know we’re really weird because we’re all animal people, and animal people will talk to the animals and put flowers all over the tortoises, crazy stuff like that,” she said.
While most of the Junior Zoologists hope to go into zoology or animal husbandry in the future, Berry is hoping to pursue a career in business, and may eventually consider running a non-profit zoo of her own.
Being part of such a unique and selective program will help with job and college applications. According to Berry, not only is the Junior Zoology program the only one in the nation that lets high school students access the animals in such a personal way, but the years of listing off facts and talking to large groups of people have boosted her public speaking skills tremendously.