Zookeeper bonds with animals and work

By Jeanne Gibson

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Photo by Erik Stepanovich

Jillian Wagner watches a North American river otter at the Columbian Park Zoo in Lafayette, Ind. The senior animal sciences major from Tinley Park, Ill., works at the zoo located near Purdue’s West Lafayette campus.

Jillian Wagner looks like a lot of students: she wears jeans and a nice top to class, and makes sure every hair is in place. But if you take a closer look you’ll see scratches on her arms and legs, reminders of her less-than-glamorous job. The senior animal sciences major from Tinley Park, Ill., is a seasonal zookeeper at Columbian Park Zoo in Lafayette, Ind., just a few miles from Purdue’s West Lafayette campus. There, she tends to wallabies, spider monkeys and North American river otters that sometimes repay her care with scratches.

“I don’t think most people would picture me as someone who works at a zoo,” Wagner said. “I always look gross during and after work. It’s not a job to impress anyone.”

She began volunteering at the zoo when she was a freshman, riding the bus from campus two or three times a week. She fell in love with the work. When she tells people about her work at the zoo, they react in different ways.

“I’m pretty sure my friends just think I pick up animal poop all day,” Wagner said.

While she’s no stranger to a shovel, her work involves much more, Wagner said. She feeds the animals, interacts with and answers questions from zoo visitors and cares for the well-being of every animal. Working so closely with the animals allows her to develop bonds with them.

That bond isn’t just a nice feeling, it also helps her do her job. When she noticed a goat that was not behaving like itself, a veterinarian checked it out and found it had a kidney stone.

“I love my animals at the zoo,” Wagner said. “I know they’re not really mine, but I truly have bonds with most of them, and I love helping them — even if that means cleaning up what they leave behind.”

The zoo is open only April through October, but Wagner cares for the animals year-round, which seems to confuse some.

“Sometimes people ask me where the animals go during the winter, which makes me laugh because they just go inside — the same place they go at night,” Wagner said. “I don’t think people realize these animals have lives outside of zoo hours.”

Still other friends wonder how Wagner became a zookeeper. Many animal sciences majors come from rural areas or farms. Wagner’s hometown is a suburb of Chicago.

“A lot of the kids from farm backgrounds came in with a lot more animal knowledge than me,” she said. “The only animal I had growing up was Molly, my pet cat.”

But working at a zoo was something she dreamed of since she was 12. The dream began after she visited the San Diego Zoo in California with her family. Even then, she knew she wanted to be a zookeeper.

“It was like walking into another world since there were animals there from so many different countries,” she said.

Her high school friends were probably more shocked that she left her hometown. She applied to Purdue, but didn’t think she would be admitted.

“I was an out-of-state student, but my grandparents are from Lafayette and I’ve always wanted to go to Purdue, so I applied anyway,” she said. “When I got accepted, I knew I was going to go here.”

After graduation, Wagner said she wants to continue working in zoos and complete the dream — scratches and all — that started when she was 12.

“My dream job is to work at the San Diego Zoo, my first love,” she said. “I doubt I’ll get on there, but then, I did get into Purdue, so anything is possible.”

Find out more

Purdue Animal Sciences
Columbian Park Zoo ​​​​