Take a Walk on the Wild Side with Memphis Zookeeper Bryan Summerford

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Bryan Summerford, a zookeeper at the Memphis Zoo, hangs out with animals all day. Photo by Tiffany Langston

You might think that being a zookeeper means that you play with animals all day. While that might be one part of the job description, it’s also just the tip of the bamboo stalk. Memphis Zoo zookeeper, Bryan Summerford, takes us behind the scenes and gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to work at one of the best zoos in the country.

What are your responsibilities as a Memphis Zoo zookeeper?
My primary duties at the Memphis Zoo are at the aquarium. This position is also known as aquarist. I am responsible for all aspects of daily husbandry for animals in the aquarium collection which includes reptiles, fish and amphibians. Hubandry encompasses all water quality, cleaning of exhibits and holding tanks, feeding the animals, and also monitoring the animals' health. I also do keeper chats for the public as well as education classes. From time to time I also fill in at the Animals of the Night and Herpetarium exhibits.

What kind of training is involved in becoming a zookeeper?
Zookeepers have different types of training and educational background. A degree in biology, zoology or a related field is helpful and preferred. After that, many zookeepers start in the field through an internship at a zoo or sanctuary or by simply volunteering at one of these places to gain the practical experience needed to work with exotic animals on a daily basis. Depending on the type of animals that you care for, training in operant conditioning may be necessary. Operant conditioning is training an animal to give you a desired behavior through either positive or negative reinforcement. For example, zookeepers use operant conditioning to train elephants to present their ear for a blood draw or to train sea lions to perform in an educational show at the zoo. 

Do you have a favorite animal or exhibit at the Memphis Zoo?
When you work at a zoo, the first question most people always ask you is "What is your favorite animal?" Honestly it is a very hard answer for me to give. I love all of the animals that I work with, and I work with such a wide variety of animals that my "favorite" can change daily, based on what animal I am working with at that time. For example, if I get asked to work in Nocturnal with bats for several months, bats could at that time be my favorite. Currently, I have a strong affection for a hand-raised bushbaby in our Animals of the Night exhibit. His name is “Chewy,” and I honestly believe he doesn’t know he is a bushbaby. Since he was hand-raised and has never been around other bushbabies, he is very accustomed to human interaction. He really loves playing around with his keepers.

What does a typical work day look like?
I come into the aquarium and view all of my exhibits from the public side and make a note of any tanks that need to be cleaned. Then, I make visual checks on the health of all of the fish and look to see if anything appears out of the ordinary. I clean tanks and feed any of the animals that need to be fed that day. Unlike your dog or housecat, our animals have unique feeding schedules. Some animals get fed twice a day, while others may not get fed at all. Next, I work on any projects that I have, which includes a breeding and conservation project that I am working on with striped newts. But that can change at any minute. I may have to jump on a crocodile to move it to an outdoor exhibit, or go help the Herpetarium staff in the venomous snake room. When you’re working with animals and thousands of people are visiting your zoo every day, no routine is ever set in stone.

What is a fun fact about the Memphis Zoo that most people don’t know?
Most people don’t know that the Memphis Zoo Aquarium was one of the first air conditioned buildings in the Mid South. They had to cool the building in order to keep some of the tanks from getting too hot for the fish in the sweltering Memphis summers. 

What are your favorite Memphis restaurants?
Pizza is probably my favorite food, and Memphis Pizza Cafe has the best. For barbeque, Central BBQ is the place for me, and I really love the Mexican at Los Compadres.

If it’s a visitor’s first time in Memphis, what are some activities you suggest they do (outside of visiting the Memphis Zoo, of course)? 
My suggestion is to just go downtown and walk around and take in the beauty of the buildings down there. The South Main area has awesome restaurants and cool shops. The Cooper Young neighborhood has quirky bars and great nightlife.