“A lot of cleaning, and then some more cleaning.” That’s how Christine Goodrow describes her job as a zookeeper at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. But cleaning and caring for giraffes, elephants, tree kangaroos and river otters, among many other species, is never boring. And when the cleaning and feeding is finished, she enjoys spending time observing the animals, making sure their needs are met, looking for hints of an illness, and ensuring that their interactions with the other animals in their exhibit are positive. A resident of Middletown and Newport for 17 years before moving to Jamestown last fall, Goodrow, 49, started working at the zoo after a brief career in finance. Like the frogs she sometimes cares for, she said she’s glad she took the leap.
Which animals do you care for?
I like to work in all different areas. I fill in as needed. But today I’m responsible for Matschie’s tree kangaroo, Bali myna, fruit doves, tawny frogmouth, kookaburra, wrinkled hornbills, river otters, and bintarong, which they call a bear cat.
What do you feed them?
The otters are carnivores, so they eat fish and meat. They’re fed four times a day minimum. Some of that is for nutrition, but it’s also to see their interest level in the food. A lack of interest would show me that something was off. Most of the animals get some form of a pellet that’s a complete nutrient, and then they get added items like fresh vegetables. I usually save their favorite food items for training, and it might be provided in a puzzle feeder so they have to work to get their food.
What do you train them to do?
Generally, there’s crate training for all of them. If they need to take a trip to the hospital for an illness or an injury, we want it to be an easy normal part of their routine to get in and out of a crate for transport. It reduces the need for sedation. Some animals are trained to present themselves for feather trims for their wings, to trim their nails, to get on a scale. It’s always need-based training, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As long as the work gets done, then we can put the fun element into it once they’re secure in that behavior. I toss fruit to my hornbill, for instance, but originally they thought I was throwing it at them. It took them awhile to get used to the game of playing catch. And the old hornbill used to toss things back. He was a good boy.
Do you have a favorite animal?
Birds, in general, are my major fascination, and wrinkled hornbills in particular. They’re monogamous. The female will find or create a hollowed-out cavern in a tree for her nest site, and she’ll use mud, food or feces to wall herself in, leaving just a slot big enough for her mate to fit his beak through. Then she is 100 percent dependent upon him for nutrition while she sits on her eggs. And once they hatch, his offspring are also entirely dependent on the male. I like the dedication they have to each other, the level of teamwork they have to create their nest.
You’re working today in the World of Adaptation exhibit. What kind of adaptations are highlighted there?
Every animal has special adaptations that it needs to survive. The otters have webbed feet and can stay under water for eight minutes. The hornbills have a beak and for noisemaking that is very specific to hornbills. Their style of breeding to protect their nest and eggs to keep them secret is another adaptation.
What’s happening during the month of May with the animals you work with?
Our new male wrinkled hornbill will be out of quarantine and placed in a room next to our female – we call it a howdy – so they can become acclimated. And then they’ll be placed together and begin to bond as a breeding pair. We’re bringing in a female binturong that will be placed beside our male and then placed together for potential breeding. We’ll know at the end of May or early June whether our tree kangaroos will be giving birth. And our three baby otters will be on exhibit as a family unit.
You sound so proud of the animals you care for, almost like you’re their parent.
There’s definitely a level of pride that comes with it. I want to showcase their amazing abilities. The same feeling that parents have when their child takes their first step or they take a gymnastics class and they do this really-not-so-great cartwheel. The level of pride I feel for my animals is similar to that. It’s the greatest feeling to have them showcased, have them learn a new behavior. No matter how awkward it is that they’ve accomplished a task, I’m proud of them. They’re really not mine, not my pets, they’re not here for entertainment in that respect, but they shine, and I want people to enjoy it or see it or experience it. I want people to know how amazing they really are.
What do you like best about your job?
This institution allows the keeper staff to have freedom, and that could be freedom to change what animals you work with, freedom to be creative in the training process. They have a lot of belief that we can manage what’s best for each animal, and that’s hard to find. It’s really a plus here that they have faith that your abilities, your energy, your efforts and your knowledge can create something that works for the animals.
Why did you decide to pursue a career at the zoo?
The minute I walked through the gates, I felt like I was home. There’s a real innocence to interacting with the animals. It’s pure. They have no motive. If you get the opportunity to interact with them on their level, to meet their needs – even if that means keeping your distance – it’s so fulfilling. You’re peeking into their behaviors and their world, and it’s calming and fascinating and genuine.
What message do you want the zoo’s visitors to take home with them?
Certainly that the animals are well cared for. But also that there is a higher goal to what we’re doing. They should do more than just stop for 30 seconds, look at the animal, and move on. If you just take a little extra time, you’ll see some of the highlights and the spark that they give.