The Louisville Zoo celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. With that in mind, we’re giving a nod to the zoological park that has, as their website states, “helped to inspire thousands of people to pursue careers in animal care, education and a variety of sciences.” Zookeeper Alexis Williamson is one of the many employees whose dream to work with animals is fulfilled by the opportunities afforded her during her 15-plus years at the zoological park. She currently works in Gorilla Forest, along with five other keepers, and is involved with fundraising and conservation efforts at the zoo. She was the president of the local chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) for 14 years, and most recently, she received national recognition by being honored with the Lutz Ruhe Professional of the Year Award, presented by the AAZK. Let’s take a walk on the wild side and discover more about Alexis and her incredible career. Welcome this week’s FACE of Louisville!
To begin, did you always have an interest in working with animals?
I did. We had cats and dogs when I was growing up, as well as hamsters, chinchillas and birds. When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian — specifically so I could help animals. My desire led me to receive a degree in animal sciences from the University of Kentucky.
When did you begin working at Louisville Zoo?
When I graduated from high school, I volunteered with the zoo’s animal hospital staff. It gave me the opportunity to see behind the scenes and learn what zookeepers do. A lot of it involves preventative maintenance for the animals. But as a volunteer, I also cleaned out stalls and cleaned up after various animals. Yet, when the vet staff was doing any kind of procedure with the animals, they would actually seek me out and let me observe what they were doing. The veterinarian and hospital supervisors at the time took a big interest in my future. It was an amazing experience. They played a large part in what I’m doing now at the zoo.
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What are some of the positions you’ve held at the zoo?
Beginning in 2002, I was a seasonal employee working in the gift shop. Two years later, I was hired on to work in guest services. I was driving the train, driving the tram — pretty much anything guest-related that you could think of. I did that for two months, and then I was able to move into the animal department. I worked in our black-footed ferret breeding program. It’s a behind-the-scenes program, and the sole purpose is to reintroduce the black-footed ferret back into its wild habitat.
My next move was to the education department, where I was working with the overnight safaris and classes. Then, a night keeper position opened, so I applied for that. The night keeper position has a dual purpose — I delivered diets, collected compost and checked on the animals throughout the night. And as night keeper, I was the only one on the grounds, so I had to monitor the entire zoo — almost like a security position. I did that for two years. Then I went to the bird department working with the lorikeets. After that, a position opened in Gorilla Forest, and I transferred to that department. We have 10 gorillas, two pygmy hippos and seven monkeys.
Did you always have the desire to work with gorillas, hippos and monkeys?
Not initially. Actually, when I came to the zoo, I intended to work with the big cats, such as lions and tigers. I was a little hesitant about working in Gorilla Forest, but I made the decision to come over, and I love it.
What is a typical day like at your job?
The basics are feeding and cleaning up after the animals and making sure they are happy and healthy as well. We don’t enter the enclosures, but we have a good training program that we use with the animals. It enables us to be able to monitor their health without physically going in with them. We ask them to show us different body parts and open their mouths so we can check their teeth. And with the gorillas, we can check their temperatures through ear thermometers. If they are showing any symptoms of being sick, we can monitor that and administer any medications they may need.
We also do keeper talks throughout the day. We have the pygmy hippo keeper talk and the monkey keeper talk. We also have the gorilla program, which at times is a keeper talk. Other times we do a food toss off the roof to get our gorillas up and moving.
Tell us about some of the programs and efforts you’ve been involved with at the zoo.
One is called Plinko for a Porpoise. We have a giant “Plinko” board similar to what you’d see on “The Price is Right.” Our local AAZK chapter sets it up when we have guest engagement experiences during special events. The money raised from that goes to vaquita conservation. The vaquita porpoise is a highly endangered animal located near Mexico; there are less than 100 of them in the wild. We’ve raised several hundred dollars through this effort.
I implemented the Animal Enrichment Tree Program. It’s basically like the angel tree you’d find at the mall, except it’s for the animals. You come to the zoo and pick up a paw print to purchase an item for an animal at the zoo. At the end of the month, all of those donations are collected — whether monetary or actual items — and they’re distributed to the areas that take care of those animals.
Switching gears, do you have any places in town where you like to hang out?
My husband and I are always interested in checking out new places. We also like going to different museums in town and learning about the history of the area. We have a couple of dogs, so we like to go to different parks in the area [with them].
Do you have any favorite restaurants in the area?
Do you have any pastimes or hobbies?
I do a lot of arts and crafts, I crochet, and I’ve recently taken up sewing. I also enjoy painting.
What advice do you treasure?
Never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. If there’s something you’re passionate about, there are always people out there who are willing to help you.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My job, animals and travel
Thank you so much, Alexis! And thank you to Jessa Mayhew for the wonderful photos.
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