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culture

I Want Your Job: Vicki Hardstaff, Zookeeper

Meet a woman who knows how to catch a snow leopard by the tail.

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.

Photo of Hardstaff and red panda friend courtesy of Toronto Zoo.


Vicki Hardstaff can’t remember when she decided she wanted to work with animals, but she knows it happened early on. “I think that’s usually how it goes,” she says. Now the Eurasia section zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, she’s living the dream in a profession that couldn’t be more different from an office job if it tried.

Hardstaff studied zoology at the University of Guelph. “Most zookeepers do have some sort of post-secondary education specializing in an animal-related course,” she explains. While she was in school, she began working summers in the wildlife-care section of the zoo. It became a full-time job in 2005.

Torontoist: What does a zookeeper’s job look like on a day-to-day basis?

Vicki Hardstaff: General duties are feeding, cleaning, making sure animals are in good health. If the animals need medical attention, we’re the first line of care there. We’re also responsible for doing talks and tours with the public. But there’s a lot that goes on that most people probably wouldn’t think of when they think of a zookeeper.

There’s a term we use in zoos these days called “behavioural enrichment.” It sounds like a big fancy term, but it’s a concept that basically means providing animals in captivity with things to do so that they’re able to perform natural behaviours that they would do in the wild. It’s also just something that keeps them mentally and physically stimulated. That’s a big part of our job, figuring out ways of keeping the animals in our care busy and happy and healthy.

How do you do that?

For example, this morning I was looking after our snow leopard. On the menu today was a rabbit and a bone. Instead of plopping those into a bowl for her, which really isn’t a natural way for her to feed, I hung the rabbit up really high and then put the bone inside a basket that I also hung up really high, so she had to first of all find it, and then jump up and grab at it to get it. That kind of encourages those natural behaviours in the wild of hunting and jumping, which is what she would normally do.

Something else that’s becoming more and more important these days is training animals in captivity. We use positive reinforcement training, so when an animal does something correctly, they are rewarded, usually with a food reward of something they like. We have animals that are trained for injections, or for a blood draw. In instances where animals aren’t trained, getting medical attention from the vet can be scary for them, especially if they need to be sedated.

What we’re able to do is teach them, “Hey this isn’t a big deal. Come over here, you’re going to get some food.” It’s quite incredible what you can accomplish. And often, as well, this is being accomplished by animals we don’t even go into the enclosure with. Some of our tigers are trained for injections. And going back to the snow leopard, that’s another animal we don’t go into the enclosure with. I’m working on a training project with her to lay down right up against the mesh and allow me to pass a snake hook [that is, a hook used for handling snakes] under the bars and hook her tail with it. I’m starting to get her used to having her tail handled so that eventually a vet will be able to get a blood sample through a vessel in her tail. Without that sort of training we would have to sedate her, and there are risks involved with that.

What is your favourite part of the job?

Two things. Training and enrichment I find very fulfilling. It’s great to see the direct results of that. Something else I’m really passionate about is red pandas and the conservation of them. We have red pandas at our zoo, and for the past three years I’ve organized a fundraising event celebrating International Red Panda Day to spread awareness about red pandas and raise money for conservation. It’s great to be able to take those sorts of initiatives and feel like you’re really impacting the wild population.

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