Happening nearby: Local woman named Zoo Keeper of the Year

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Lynnwood resident Katie Ahl works with giraffes at the Woodland Park Zoo. Ahl recently was named the 2015 Zoo Keeper of the Year at the Woodland Park Zoo. (Photo by John Loughlin)
Lynnwood resident Katie Ahl works with giraffes at the Woodland Park Zoo. Ahl recently was named the 2015 Zoo Keeper of the Year at the Woodland Park Zoo. (Photo by John Loughlin)

Ever since she was a little girl Katie Ahl thought about becoming a veterinarian.

The Lynnwood resident had many pets when she was growing up. Ahl later on went to the University of Washington where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology.

But Ahl eventually decided against veterinary medical school because she thought that being a vet meant that she would be treating animals when they’re sick.

“I really wanted to work with them when they were happy and healthy and to make sure they were happy and healthy,” said Ahl, who grew up in Renton.

Ahl shifted her focus and started looking at different careers. After college, she worked at the University of Washington in Primate Research. She also started volunteering at the Woodland Park Zoo where she eventually found her calling as a zoo keeper.

She initially was hired as a seasonal zoo keeper and then eventually was offered a full-time position.

Ahl recently was honored as the Woodland Park Zoo’s 2015 Zoo Keeper of the Year Award during National Zoo Keeper Week.

“I don’t deserve this award of excellence any more than any of the other zookeepers at Woodland Park Zoo,” Ahl said. “This award inspires me to strive to be a better zookeeper. I am proud to work alongside these passionate keepers who have dedicated their lives to wildlife. We all do amazing work here. I just got caught doing it.”

The best part of Ahl’s job are the animals. She currently is the lead zoo keeper for the African Savanna and helps take care of the giraffes, hippos, zebras, ostriches and everything else on the savanna. Ahl has been in her current position for a year and with the Woodland Park Zoo for about seven years.

“I love hanging out with the animals,” Ahl said. “It’s great to come up here and spend time with them and even in a training session when they’re kind of not cooperating as much as I would like, that’s the best part of my day.”

As the lead zoo keeper, Ahl’s duties are similar to the other zoo keepers, except that she has a lot more meetings and paperwork. During a typical day, Ahl comes in during the morning, checks the animals and feeds them. She then shifts the animals so that she can clean their exhibit. The afternoon is spent shifting the animals again, cleaning the exhibit and barn and feeding them.

Ahl currently also is involved in training sessions with one of the giraffes. The zoo keepers are working to train the giraffe to allow for a voluntary blood draw. The zoo keepers do not want to have to use medication to anesthetize the animals for procedures.

“We just want them to come and voluntary present to have the blood draw, just like you would go to the doctor and hold your arm out,” Ahl said. “It’s a lot of trust and practice. We have to work with the vet staff.”

Giraffes can be flighty and scared of everything, added Ahl, who noted that training can take up to a year, depending on the individual.

“The hardest thing about training a giraffe is getting them over their fear of something,” Ahl said. “Each is just like your pets at home. They all have different personalities. Some are more tolerant of certain things.”

The animals Ahl works with are not pets.

“They’re in a captive situation, but they’re still wild,” she said. “We have to treat and respect that. That’s what they are. It’s not my job to domesticate them. It’s my job to provide them with as natural of an environment as we can. … It’s more about creating their world and getting them to work with us when we need to work together.”

The animals socialize with their own species rather than the zoo keepers. They aren’t dependent on her, except for lunch or dinner, Ahl said.

An increasing part of Ahl’s job is interacting with the public. The Woodland Park Zoo has a giraffe feed that is open to the public.

“In the past there were no feeds and you never saw a zoo keeper when you came to a zoo,” Ahl said. “They were always behind the scene. Not only do you take care of the animals but you also have to be able to educate and work with the public.”

Ahl’s zoo keeper role mirrors the changes zoos also have been undergoing in recent years. Zoos no longer are just a place for people to come and see animals.

“We want people … to take away something that they can do for the world, for the planet,” Ahl said.

People might say they are going to recycle more or they are going to join a wildlife conservation organization.

“That’s where a lot of our programs have changed — to drive a message home,” Ahl said. “We want to try to give people something to take away other than looking at this amazing giraffe.”

– By David Pan

Katie Ahl feeds the giraffes. (Photo by David Pan)
Katie Ahl feeds the giraffes. (Photo by David Pan)

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