During the summer months, we are revisiting some of our favorite BU Today stories from the past year. This week, we feature some notable BU alumni.
Standing seven feet tall and weighing in at an impressive 1,700 pounds, Roomba the Randall steer is an excellent student. Quick to learn, his teacher, zookeeper Hannah Keklak, reports he is also eager to please.
When she approaches his stall, Roomba raises his head up and over his metal gate for a chin scratch. “I have to do that, otherwise he gets upset,” Keklak (CAS’11) explains as Roomba shifts his eyes down to look at her. “He’s like a big puppy dog. He’ll lick you if you’re not careful, and I try to avoid that because then I’ll be filthy all day.”
The 28-year-old Keklak has been a zookeeper for just over a year at the 72-acre Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. The zoo is home to more than 220 species of animals, among them lions, tigers, lowland gorillas, and kangaroos. Keklak works in the Franklin Farm and Children’s Zoo areas, where, in addition to Roomba, she cares for the zoo’s barn owl, teaching it falconry training techniques, a poitou donkey (whose coat falls in dreadlocked spirals), a degu (a South American rodent), and a host of other animals, including red pandas, prairie dogs, ponies, ducks, and tortoises.
“This is a job I still want to go to even when I’m deathly ill,” she says. “The animals actually get mad if I take a vacation or have a day off. Their attitude is like, where have you been? It’s funny.”
After graduating from BU with a degree in psychology, Keklak worked for a year in human resources, but decided she wanted a more satisfying career. After volunteering with the MSPCA and the New England Aquarium for two years, she applied for a zoo externship at Franklin Park Zoo, and afterwards was hired for a full-time position.
“I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian,” says Keklak, reeling off a list of her past and present menagerie: dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, snakes, fish, chinchillas, gerbils, guinea pigs. “My friends and family weren’t surprised when I got the job at the zoo.”
Keklak’s day typically starts two and a half hours before the zoo opens to the public. She is responsible for cleaning the animals’ enclosures, feeding them, and—depending on the animal—leading them from their sleeping area to their exhibition space. Throughout the day she works with them on training, sometimes accompanies veterinarians on rounds, and then after the zoo closes, cleans and feeds the animals again. “I think the most surprising thing is how physical the job is, with hard labor and cleaning,” she says. “But it’s also satisfying, because you see the direct results of your hard work with the animals.”
Zookeepers aim to make training fun for the animals, otherwise they won’t be likely to cooperate. Most of the training Keklak does is with a clicker, similar to how some people train their dogs. “You give an animal a cue, and if they do that cue, you click, and that’s a bridge telling them that they did the right thing and their reward is coming,” she says.
Keklak has trained Roomba using a goad, or small stick. He responds when she taps on different spots on his body, and he now knows commands for walk, stop, turn left, and turn right. “Training is a form of enrichment and it is what he would do as a working steer in the field,” she says. “Our training is all based on respect. I respect his size, and he probably just thinks I’m a cow higher in the herd.”
Another animal she’s trained is a guinea hog named Cordelia. This portly six-year-old loves belly rubs and weighs about 200 pounds, thanks to her affinity for sweet potatoes, apples, and celery. To show off what Cordelia has learned, Keklak walks inside the hog’s enclosure, touches a stick to a red square, and says, “Cordelia, target.” When the hog touches the target with her nose, Keklak fires her clicker, and Cordelia is rewarded with a treat. When Keklak says, “Open,” Cordelia immediately opens her mouth.
Training is critical to assist with the animals’ medical care. “Your training helps the veterinary staff and makes things less stressful for the animals,” Keklak says. “One of the hardest actions to teach animals is to open their mouth. To voluntarily have the animal open its mouth and keep it open is a very submissive action, but it allows the vet to look inside and check their teeth or gums.”
Some of the enrichment activities she provides draw on animals’ natural ability to seek out food. “Red pandas in the wild search for their food, so you can hide special snacks in the bamboo, like grapes or panda biscuits,” she says. “So they have to search for it instead of eating it out of a bowl, because they don’t eat out of a bowl in the wild.”
Keklak says that in addition to caring for and training the animals, zookeepers have an equally pressing mission. One of the most important parts of her job, she says, is making the public interested in the animals so that they make the natural progression to caring about the environment and conservation.
Looking ahead, Keklak says she would like to learn more about falconry and eventually work with large birds of prey, including bald eagles and golden eagles. She’s not sure if her other animals would be too happy about that, though.
The Franklin Park Zoo, One Franklin Park Road, Boston, is open during the summer from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays; winter hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors (62+), $13.95 for children 2 to 12, free for members and children under 2. More information can be found here.
Jason Kimball can be reached at email@example.com.