Dream Job: I’m in Charge of the Gorillas at Philly Zoo

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor

Just another day at the office. (Photo: Philadelphia Zoo)

Growing up, we all had fantasies of running away and moving into our local zoo. While that isn’t exactly possible as a grownup, there are some jobs where you can spend all of your days interacting with the animals. 

Kristen Farley-Rambo is a gorilla keeper at Philadelphia Zoo. With the opening of Gorilla Treeway — the newest pathway in Philadelphia Zoo’s revolutionary animal travel and exploration trail system, called Zoo360 — this year has been a particularly exciting one for Kristen and the five Western lowland gorillas she cares for. 

All eyes are on these magnificent primates as they are given new opportunities to determine their own experiences, explore the trees and expand their world.

We caught up with Kristen to find out a little about how she landed this sweet gig. 

Yahoo Travel: What did you study to get this job?

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Kristen Farley-Rambo: I have a degree in biology, with a concentration in environmental science. I have always enjoyed animals, so I focused most of my studies on animal behavior and physiology. Environmental issues and conservation also interest me, and I’m fortunate that my career as a zookeeper allows me to interact with animals while also working toward the conservation of their wild counterparts.

A new way to see the gorillas. (Photo: Philadelphia Zoo)

Yahoo Travel: What do you do on a daily basis?

Kristen Farley-Rambo: I’m responsible for the care of Honi, Kira, Motuba, Louis, and Kuchimba, the five gorillas in our animal collection. Each day, I prepare nutritious and balanced meals, which they eat four to five times a day; work on their training, and administer any necessary medications. Animal well-being is a priority, so we work to achieve voluntary participation in any behaviors that facilitate their medical care. All of our gorillas are trained, using positive reinforcement, to present various body parts, accept injections, and sit on a scale, which helps us to take care of them better. They are also trained to participate in cardiac ultrasounds while they are awake so that we can detect and/or monitor heart disease, which is common among gorillas in zoos. We are excited to have an elevated training platform as part of Gorilla Treeway so we can showcase these behaviors to our many guests.

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Yahoo Travel: What is the most rewarding part of the job?

Kristen Farley-Rambo: Earning the trust of the gorillas is something I’m honored to have accomplished; it is a critical part of working with any animal. Some are easier to win over than others,  but developing a deep bond is essential.  

Just hanging out. (Photo: Philadelphia Zoo)

Yahoo Travel: What is the worst part?

Kristen Farley-Rambo: Saying goodbye to an animal is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the job. When any of our animals move on to different zoos on recommendations from the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which works with zoos to carefully coordinate breeding to sustain a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied species population, we miss them! While I know their new homes are great, it’s always sad to see them go. I spend more time with the gorillas than I do with my own family, and they have each taught me so much over the years.

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Yahoo Travel: What question do you get asked most often?

Kristen Farley-Rambo: It’s a tie between “Why do they look so sad?” and “Do you go in with them?”

Gorillas have different facial musculature than we do. A happy, content gorilla actually has what we recognize as a frown on its face. In the wild, gorillas are meant to do three things: eat, breed, and defend their territory. When they aren’t doing those things, they are resting and conserving their energy. It’s the same for gorillas in zoos. Typically, humans don’t spend time every day running around and playing, and neither do gorillas. They enjoy napping and staring out into the crowds — for them, watching the visitors each day is like us watching TV!  We provide our gorillas with several enrichment opportunities every day, like offering them food in a puzzle feeder to exercise their minds, or scattering diced vegetables so they can forage for food. These activities, as well as training sessions and interactions with their keepers, keep them stimulated and mimic actions that they do in the wild.  

We do interact with the gorillas, but we work through “protected contact,” which means that there is always a mesh barrier between keepers and animals.  The mesh allows us to safely train the gorillas and give them a highly sought after back or belly scratch.

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