A Zookeeper

As told to Blake Ellis



Feeding sloths. Bandaging wounded flamingos. Training alligators. Lifelong animal lover Christine McKenzie has been lucky enough to find her dream job.

As a zookeeper at one of Canada’s biggest zoos, 31-year-old McKenzie gets to hang out with different kinds of animals all day long (her favorites are the snakes) and keep them safe and healthy.

While the pay she receives may not turn her into a millionaire any time soon, it’s enough to help support her family. And that’s a whole other zoo, with a one-year-old, a three-year-old, a flock of chickens and a dog to take care of at home.

Here are journal entries from a day of her life:

3:00 AM

My day often begins with my three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter waking up. If I’m lucky, I have been sleeping soundly up to this point, but from now until it’s actually time to get up, I will have to continue my beauty rest with one or two pairs of tiny hands and feet clutching me under the covers.

6:00 AM

Now we are up for real. I try to sneak out of bed without waking them, I send the dog out to pee and go over my schedule for the day.

7:00 AM

We are up and off to daycare. Being a working mother comes with so much emotion. I love what I do and I think I am a better mother for having a career outside the home, but I feel intense guilt for leaving them all day.

8:30 AM

I sit with my fellow zookeepers at our daily morning meeting, listening to a report of all the significant happenings around the zoo. Several of the gorillas seem to have a cold, a shipment of butterfly pupae is arriving this afternoon, and a cheetah is scheduled for dental surgery.

9:00 AM

A full day of feeding, cleaning, training and caring for the many animals in my section of the zoo begins with making the rounds to ensure everyone is well.

Not everyone goes outside in the winter. Some prefer the warmth of an accommodating zookeeper's shirt.

10:00 AM

Others have more respect for personal space, but are happy to pose for pictures. Sloths can move surprisingly quickly when breakfast appears.

11:00 AM

Coffee break. Smells like someone in the break room has poop stuck to their shoe, but no one really cares. Or maybe it’s under my fingernails. It’s hard to tell.

12:00 PM

Union meeting. I am the president of our local union, representing all of the workers at our zoo — from the keepers to the custodians to the plumbers. I listen to their concerns, and we talk about the challenges and issues we’re facing. It’s a fulfilling job, representing people who are so deeply passionate about what they do.

I am the first female president of our union, which is a constant reminder of how much my profession has changed from male-dominated jobs filled largely by farmhands and less educated workers in the 60’s and 70’s, to the highly skilled and sought-after positions filled more often by females today.

1:00 PM

Being a generalist keeper makes the day wonderfully varied. Working with all sorts of different animals keeps me on my toes, and I welcome some time inside to take care of the tropical frogs. We are breeding these critically endangered lemur leaf frogs and take extra care not to transmit any contaminates on to their delicate skin.

2:00 PM

Flamingo round up! It’s important for animals living in a big group like this to get a thorough checkup a couple times a year, to make sure everyone is healthy and nothing goes unnoticed.

One bird has a cut on his leg; it gets cleaned and bandaged up, and we will keep an eye on him while it heals. We don’t want to remove him from the group -- that can upset the social balance -- so we will just watch him closely.

4:00 PM

I always leave time in the day to say hello to my favorite girls, our American alligators. We are training them to come to a target when we call their names, to be fed.

I love explaining what we’re doing to the curious crowd of visitors. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is being able to educate people and dispel the fears and misunderstandings they might have about certain animals, particularly reptiles.

My mentor was a reptile expert, and I eventually fell in love with these misunderstood prehistoric beasts. They may not want to cuddle, but they are quite amazing.

5:00 PM

Time to head home. There’s a special delivery to pick up today from the local feed store; a new batch of backyard chicks. They’ll stay inside with us under a heat lamp in the living room until they’re big enough to go out to our backyard coop.

I don’t necessarily want my kids to become zookeepers -- it’s a physically exhausting job with long, odd hours and it’s very difficult to find decent-paying full time work -- but it’s important to me that they love and respect the natural world. Learning about where food comes from is a big part of that, and the main reason I decided we would become a backyard chicken family.

6:00 PM

Trying to make dinner and get Hunter changed for skating lessons. I can’t remember the last time I ate dinner with two hands, but I don’t miss it.

7:00 PM

Bath time. One in the sink and one in the tub.

8:30 PM

Feet up at last. My third attempt of the day to drink a mug of tea while it’s still warm. I contemplate putting on my favorite movie for about 30 seconds and then promptly fall asleep with my late-night couch buddy.

Readers: What's it like to spend 24 hours in your shoes? Email blake.ellis@cnn.com for the chance to be profiled in an upcoming story.
Published on April 1, 2015