- Associated Press - Sunday, August 16, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Lincoln Children’s Zoo is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and this month’s “Zoobilee” event at Pinnacle Bank Arena served as the official birthday party. The celebration featured a birds of prey show, live children’s music and performances by Larry the Cable Guy.

A Malcolm couple has visited the zoo with two generations of family for decades.

Orell and Jane Piening sat in the lower bowl at the arena with two of their grandchildren waiting for Larry to take center stage. Orell Piening, 73, remembers visiting the Children’s Zoo before it was even the Children’s Zoo. There was only a building housing animals at the time; the WPA Lincoln Municipal Zoo, which closed in 1980.

The Pienings’ oldest child was born in 1965, the same year the Children’s Zoo opened. They started visiting when she was 4 or 5 years old, reminisced Jane Piening.

Now, the couple visits the zoo with their grandchildren, as they did on a recent Friday. Two other grandchildren work at the zoo, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1ICIach ) reported.

“It’s a well kept-up zoo,” Orell said. “For Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s a really nice zoo.”

A lot has changed about the Children’s Zoo since the Pienings began visiting, including the way zookeepers do their job.

For example, it’s much easier to diagnose when an animal might be sick.

When she first started her job as a zookeeper, Missy Rutten would examine animal feces for abnormalities. If she spotted something suspicious, she’d take a picture of it with a camera and bring that picture to her boss, Animal Curator Randy Scheer.

Scheer would look at it and advise Rutten on what - if any - action was needed.

But that was 15 years ago. Nowadays, Rutten pulls out her cellphone, snaps a picture of the droppings and shoots it over to her boss.

Even more has changed about the profession since Scheer and CEO/President John Chapo were on the job. Scheer was a zookeeper for several years before becoming the curator. Chapo has led the zoo for 29 years, making him the zoo’s longest-tenured director.

The passage of time naturally lends itself to improved methods of working. For zookeepers, that means new information on caring for animals and entirely different outlooks on the job itself.

Zookeepers’ responsibilities were mostly limited to feeding and picking up after the animals when Chapo first started, he said. Zookeepers were also responsible for veterinary care and planning individual diets, yet lacked the formal education of modern zookeepers.

Chapo estimated only one out of every five or six zookeepers had a degree when he first started.

Scheer said that many zookeepers were “uneducated city workers” with little to no formal training in dealing with animals.

Scheer related the story from back in the 1990s when he was working the camel exhibit and a mother gestured toward him and told her child, “This is what happens if you quit school.”

Modern zookeeping at the Children’s Zoo is more involved than ever before. Similarly, keepers are more educated than ever before. Every one of his full-time zookeepers has a degree, Chapo said.

The modern zookeeper is more focused on educating the public than when he started, Chapo said. There is a great deal more information about the animals available to the keepers now than there was when he started.

Rutten said her job includes informing visitors on the zoo’s endangered species, why that animal is endangered and “why we should care what’s happened.”

The advent of an electronic information program has revolutionized the way zookeepers do their job.

The program is called ZIMS, which stands for Zoological Information Management System. The program holds a database with information on individual animals from zoos across the world. It helps keepers learn from fellow keepers on how best to care for their animals.

The program was adopted about two years ago, Chapo said. It provides information on animal gene pools with regard to breeding, medical issues and dietary needs.

“It is absolutely amazing,” Chapo said.

Animals aren’t simply babysat anymore. Zookeepers spend time on enrichment, nutrition and continued learning about how to care for their animals.

“‘Enrichment’ wasn’t even a word’ back when Chapo began his career, he said. Enrichment includes toys, entertainment and other life-bettering activities.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Chapo said.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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