Keeper Rebecca Rice really enjoys working with the six goats under her care in Goat World. Her favourite is Easter Bunny, left, who only has three legs. “He is so sweet,” she said. She has trained him to walk off-leash and they walk around the whole zoo together.

This zookeeper loves her job

By Kathryn Stocks

Meet Rebecca Rice, an Outreach & Discovery keeper at the Toronto Zoo. She works directly with the animals, along with 93 other full-time, part-time and temporary zookeepers there.

A normal day for Rebecca begins with a big morning meeting with the keepers onsite. This allows them to catch up on what happened with all the animals the day before. “Then we split up and go to our separate areas,” she said. “For us the morning is husbandry: cleaning, feeding breakfast, doing visual checks on the animals, doing welfare and enrichment.”

In the afternoons, the Outreach & Discovery keepers put on live animal demonstrations or take animals to events so people can get close to them. For those working with animals like gorillas or orangutans, the animals take up their whole day depending on the welfare and enrichment they need.

Some animals have their favourite keepers and keepers develop attachments to animals. Rebecca works with six goats in Goat World. “I didn’t think that I would ever like goats and I just inherited the herd of goats and I love them,” she said. “They’re so funny and they all have unique personalities.”

The one named Easter Bunny is a particular favourite. “He only has three legs, but he is so sweet. I’ve trained him to walk off leash,” she said. “We walk around the whole zoo together and he walks beside me better than my dog does.”

The Toronto Zoo is split up by areas and the keepers in each area will look after all the animals within it. So there are savannah keepers, IndoMalaya keepers, tundra keepers, etc. Rebecca is a generalist keeper and she has to know how to look after everything, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, because she can be placed in any area. She comes from a bird background so she does a lot with the birds of prey.

The Outreach & Discovery area has more domestic animals and gets new zookeepers who are just learning. “It’s the one area where you are physically working with them, training them and being in with them,” she said. “A lot of the other animals are non-contact and there’s always a barrier between you.” 

Rebecca said being a keeper doesn’t really feel like a job. “It’s so rewarding because you develop relationships with these beings.” But there are tough times, too. “Some days it’s nonstop and you’re working in minus 40 degree weather.” She said the worst times are when they lose one of the animals, and then it can be devastating for the keepers.

Growing up, Rebecca didn’t know she wanted to be a zookeeper. “I didn’t know it was an actual choice to go to for a profession,” she said. After high school she studied criminology but didn’t do well because she would skip school to go and ride horses. That was when she figured she should work with animals, so she studied veterinary technology and happily ended up at the Toronto Zoo.