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More women finding careers in zoos

When Linda Rohr Bachers was growing up in Wisconsin she thought the only way she could be around animals was to marry a farmer. She didn't know that careers working with elephants, rare birds, and big cats existed for women. Today she keeps track of the daily lives of 1,000 animals at Zoo New England.

Sandy Elliott loved animals but assumed zoo work was men's work. She applied for a zookeeper job at Zoo New England on a $20 bet with a male friend who thought she was a perfect match for the job description. "I've never lost awe of being around these animals," says Elliott. She has worked at Stone Zoo for the past 21 years and is lead zookeeper.

By the time Hayley Murphy attended veterinarian school there was an increase in women training to become veterinarians. Yet to specialize in zoo medicine there were only four or five residencies a year nationwide. The risks were rewarded. "From hoof stock to birds to primates to carnivores, the variation I deal with is tremendous," says the director of veterinary medicine at Zoo New England.

Women are attracted to these jobs for the same reasons men are: They are prestigious, intellectually challenging, and combine technical and people skills. And, because so many persisted - demanding to take qualifying tests and be hired at an equal rate with men - women working in zoos are not as isolated as they were as recently as 15 years ago. According to a workplace survey conducted in 2000 by the American Association of Zoo Keepers, 75 percent of zookeepers across the country now are female. Women with advanced science degrees working as curators, nutritionists, researchers, and veterinarians are also now commonplace at zoos. Seventy percent of graduates of veterinarian schools each year are women, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

While there is no source that tallies the numbers of women employed as zoo veterinarians, data obtained from seven of the eight US zoos with the highest attendance indicate that the majority of full-time zoo veterinarians and zookeepers, and in most cases curators, are women.

"To see a woman veterinarian or zookeeper 20 years ago was unusual," says Murphy.

"Our vet staff was recently all women. We took away the men's room and made it into a reptile room," says Murphy, adding that it was done for practical reasons - that there was "no correlation" implied.

This gender reversal coincides with changes in the zoo world at large. Zoos no longer exist just to put animals on display. They receive funding from government and private foundations for conservation projects in the wild, genetic studies in the zoos themselves, and a range of activities with broad environmental scope. "The standard of care is incredible," says Murphy. "You may have the last of a species." One result: Zoo vets now typically work full time rather than being on call.

Franklin Park and Stone zoos, which make up Zoo New England, are a good example of the gender changes in the field. Out of 54 zookeepers, 37 are women. Three of the five curators are women. Besides the predominantly female veterinarian staff, one zookeeper with a master's degree works with zebras, another is a PhD candidate working with baboons, and another working in the Children's Zoo has two master's degrees. The staff tends to the animals' diets, performs veterinary exams on over 250 different species of animals, and is part of the decision making concerning mating. The women do the full range of jobs once performed exclusively by men including hefting hay bales and building fences. They are trained to use rifles to tranquilize animals.

All of these activities require a much higher level of education and diversity among the staff. According to Susan Chan, editor of "Animals' Keepers Forum," the zookeeper position has gone from being focused on laborer skills to including behavioral observation, environmental enrichment, and even reproductive studies. Zookeeping is also now more people oriented. "Back when I started," says Elliott, "we weren't allowed to use the public restrooms. Now we go out and tell people about the animals."

The most valued asset for entering the zookeeping profession is experience with exotic animals and a science-related undergraduate college degree. But a recent trend shows more entering the field with master's degrees. Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for Chicago's Lincoln Park, says zoo curators who hold master's and PhDs may be the inspiration for this. "When they see the top moving up - curators being hired with PhDs - they say 'I better go ahead and get my master's.'." Of the four curators at Lincoln Park - all of whom are women - two hold master's degrees and two have PhDs.

As part of Zoo New England's early effort to include a focus on animal behavior, Rohr Bachers, hired in 1979, became the first zookeeper with a four-year college degree. Today the zoo has a computerized database of animal behavioral observations submitted daily by keepers, which Rohr Bachers maintains. Yet it was not until she began studying anthropology as an adult at the University of Massachusetts at Boston that she became directed toward zoo work.

Young people know about zoo careers as well as employment possibilities much earlier today. Zoos receive 200 to 300 applications for each zookeeper position posted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, says spokeswoman Jane Ballantine. "People will move all over the country for these jobs." The competition is one reason salaries have remained low, Ballantine says. Although the association addresses issues of salaries when accrediting zoos, compensation has not kept pace with the growing complexity of the work; starting salaries are commonly in the mid-20s.

Veterinarians earn more. Wilbur B. Amand, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, says salary levels are "very regional and all across the board." But he says annual salaries right after graduation are typically $35,000 to $40,000. That rises to as much as $60,000 with two or three years' experience. If the experience includes residencies with a certified zoo, the range is $50,000 to $65,000.

Academic programs with titles like zookeeping technology and exotic animal management are turning up across the country. Of a list of 25 schools and programs for zookeepers provided by the American Association of Zookeepers, all but two have emerged within the last 10 years.

While the programs appear specialized, a variety of different sciences are applicable for curator and zookeeping work, says Ballantine, "from biology to behavioral anthropology - it's very broad based."