A Writer's Playground

Monthly Activities for Kids by Linda Martin Andersen

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Posts Tagged ‘temporary exhibits’

Meet Melissa Barr, a Zookeeper at North Carolina Zoological Park

Posted by lindamartinandersen on July 14, 2012

“Meet Melissa Barr, a Zookeeper at North Carolina Zoological Park” posted by Linda Martin Andersen


“A Writer’s Playground”–A place to find wordplay, writing, and monthly calendar activities for kids and those young at heart.

July 15-21 is National Zoo Keepers Week.  To celebrate, a zookeeper has come to visit “A Writer’s Playground.”

Welcome Melissa Barr, a zookeeper at North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, NC.

nczoo.org (NC Zoo website)

nczoo.com (NC Zoo Society website)

Let’s give Melissa Barr a “zookeeper welcome” by growling out in our best animal cries.  What animal sound did you make? 

Melissa, please tell us what it’s like being a zookeeper. 

Hi, my name is Melissa Barr and I am a zookeeper at the North Carolina Zoological Park.  I work at the Cypress Swamp section with the alligators, cougars, waterfowl, as well as a variety of other reptiles and amphibians. 

Keeper Barr feeding male gator, NC Zoo photo by Melissa Barr

We have four keepers in our section and we may work either an early shift from 7am-4pm or from 8:30-5:30.  We work a rotating schedule that includes some weekends and holidays, as the zoo is open everyday except Christmas Day and occasional closures due to severe weather.  Being a zookeeper is a fun and rewarding career, however job openings are very competitive with minimal salary considering the necessary educational credentials.  Our job duties vary as keepers, but most always will include daily feeding, cleaning, training, providing enrichment, and observation of the animals we take care of. 

Keeper Decker Scale training female alligator, NC Zoo photo by Melissa Barr

Visitors enjoy our gator feeds that we typically do 4 days a week.  We do go in with them and work on training our gators to station at a particular area to be fed, as well as target training with a bamboo stick or other pole.  We are able to get a gator on a scale to weigh them, as well as work on an unrestrained blood draw via the tail. People often ask have we ever been bitten, and the answer is no.  The gators are only wanting to be fed and we are aware of their capabilities and behavior and do use caution as we toss them their food by hand.  One interesting fact about the gators is that they only eat from mid April to mid October as our weather is just too cold for them to eat year round.  They become less active during this time, but will still bask on warm days. Of course, gators in warmer climates would be able to eat longer than ours as we are the farthest north of any facility to house gators outside. 

Eggstravaganza with Cougar Oliver, NC Zoo photo by Melissa Barr

The best part of my day would have to be hearing Oliver the cougar purr.  But having said that I want people to realize that cougars and other wild cat species are dangerous animals and should never be kept as pets as they get big and too difficult to handle.  In fact, both of our cougars were rescued from the illegal pet trade.  One more interesting fact is that cougars are the largest member of the small cat species, hence the ability to purr whereas large cat species roar. 

Eggstravaganza event in April, NC Zoo photo by Melissa Barr

The best thing that visitors can do to show appreciation of the animals is to really show respect to them.  What a wonderful opportunity it is for people to see animals up close that they rarely would get to see otherwise.  They may not be active at times, but it is never a good idea to throw things, spit, or bang on the glass.  Learn as much as possible about animals, because if you understand them and are aware of the problems they have, people are more likely to help them.  Learn how you can get involved in conservation or at least be aware of the impact that your actions may have on wildlife. 

Melissa Barr says, “One of my favorite quotes is:  We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.  ~Native American Proverb”

The zoo posts a list of animal feed times in the plaza as you enter.  There are a variety of camps and programs for kids.  Check the zoo’s website at nczoo.org and the zoo society website at nczoo.com
What are the most frequently asked questions from visitors at the zoo? 

Melissa Barr, from North Carolina Zoological Park, shares the questions she hears most frequently and her answers.

  1. Are the alligators real?  Yes!  Since they are reptiles they are not very active and like to bask in the sun.

  2.  When/what do you feed the alligators?  They are fed twice per week.  Each receive roughly ½ chicken, 1 rat and 1 large fish.  On the days they are fed we post a sign giving the time in front of the exhibit we plan to feed that day.

  3. Why aren’t the alligators more active? Can you make them move?  They are reptiles and get the energy they need from basking in the sun.  We do not make them move and hope that people do not throw things at them to try to get them to move. 

  4.  Are the cougars going to have babies?  No, they are both male cats.  They are getting older in age and have some sagging skin in their belly.

  5. How old is the alligator?  The male alligator is about 33 years old, and the females range in age from 12 -17 years old.

  6. Where can you find cougars in the wild and are they endangered?  They have a large range and population from western Canada to South America.  There is an isolated subspecies in Florida, called the Florida Panther that is critically endangered

  7. Do you go in with the animals?  We do not go in with the cougars as they are a dangerous animal, but instead work with them through the mesh for training helpful behaviors.  We do go in with the gators as needed and to feed them.  They are target trained using a stick and are tossed their food by hand.

  8. Did you paint the ducks bill blue?  No, the ruddy duck males have a blue beak during the breeding season.

  9. Where is the closest restroom?  Either to the right at the North American plaza or to the left at Nathan’s.

  10. What kind of education do you have to be a zookeeper?  I have a bachelor’s degree in biology.  Some keepers here also have a 2 year degree in animal science

  11. How do we get out of here? This is a question we usually hear at the end of the day and with over 500 acres of exhibits to explore visitors should allow 4-6 hours to see the entire park.  The zoo offers shuttle bus service that goes directly from parking lot to parking lot, as well as tram service that can get visitors from one area of the zoo to another.

  12. Can you see the animals from the tram?  The tram is meant to get visitors from one area of the park to another.  In general you cannot see animals from the tram.  One exception is that the tram goes by the African plains exhibit and you may or may not see an animal as the tram is driving by.

  13. Where are the kangaroos/giant tortoises/white alligators? These exhibits were all temporary exhibits that the zoo had in the past and the animals have moved to other zoos.

  14. Where are the tigers?  We do not have tigers as the zoo exhibits animals from Africa and North America.

Once again, let’s thank Melissa Barr for sharing her zookeeping experiences with us. Melissa, please tell Cougar Oliver and the alligators “Hello” from us. 


Readers, please leave a question or a comment.  I encourage you to visit a zoo in your area this week or when you can.  And be sure to visit “A Writer’s Playground” again soon.  Bring a friend.

Copyright © 2012 Linda Martin Andersen

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