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Youths gain experience as jr. zookeepers

Jeremy Turgeon and Denise Stewkesbury are among more than 50 young people participating in the Junior Zookeeper Program at The Zoo in Forest Park this summer. Turgeon holds a 1 -year -old Albino Burmese Python while Stewkesbury holds "Harley," a two-year-old leopard gecko. Reminder Publications photo by Lori O'Brien
By Lori O' Brien


SPRINGFIELD Hard work = a lot of fun.

That's the way Alison Laprade, education associate, and Keely Ouellette, junior zookeeper coordinator, both from the Zoo in Forest Park, describe the Junior Zookeeper Program that welcomed more than 50 young people into the fold during a recent water soaked Saturday afternoon orientation session.

Despite the torrential rain during the orientation presentation under a green and white tent, the soon-to-be junior zookeepers seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity to start working with animals.

The Junior Zookeeper Program provides a volunteer opportunity for young people who are interested in animals to learn about exotic and indigenous species, their care, and the maintenance and management of a professional zoo.

What makes this program unique is it's the only one of its kind in western Massachusetts, according to Laprade.

"Not only do the kids learn basic animal husbandry but they also get to help in the training and enrichment of the animals," she said.

Ouellette echoed those sentiments and added that young people learn how to set a good example for others since they will be representing the zoo to visitors.

For young people ages 12 to 17 who are interested in a career involving animals, the program is an ideal place to start, according to Laprade.

"It is a great opportunity for the children to gain animal husbandry experience," she said, adding that most people start volunteering in college and all of these children will have an advantage over their peers.

Juniors will help with animal care, animal enrichment, feeding, and the cleaning of exhibits, the barnyard and grounds. In addition, they will assist with educational programs, tend a vegetable garden, and keep an animal observation notebook.

"We also require the junior zookeepers to do some educational programs that will help them with their confidence and public-speaking skills," said Laprade.

New to the zoo this year will be "Educarts" led by junior zookeepers which will provide patrons with information, display artifacts and offer activities that will enhance the visitor's zoo experience. Also new to the junior zookeeper program is assigning a shift leader at the beginning of each work session. Each junior zookeeper will have an opportunity to be the shift leader if they so choose. Responsibilities will range from counting the funds raised during the shift to documenting the raised amount and handling conflict resolution within one's crew.

Jeremy Turgeon, 13, of Springfield, and Denise Stewkesbury, 15, of Windsor Locks, Conn., were among the young people returning to the program this summer. Both have a love for animals that is undisputable.

"I have been a fan of animals since I was eight," said Turgeon, who plans a future of specializing in reptile veterinary skills.

Turgeon said he has 12 reptiles at home and several small animals, so he feels right at home at the zoo especially the reptile room. He praised the program for allowing young people to learn firsthand about the behind-the-scenes work that is done each day and the educational opportunities that are available. While his first love is with the reptiles, he said he looks forward to entering his second year by working with the larger animals including the miniature horses and the new camel.

Stewkesbury also touts the program for its educational opportunities for young people. A future zookeeper, she readily admits that her interaction with the baby animals are her favorite part of a shift.

"You have to be ready to work and want to work," she said, adding that getting dirty is all part of the job and the overall experience.

At the culmination of the summer program, the young people will participate in a group field trip at a destination to be mutually agreed upon. To finance the field trip, young people will participate in fundraisers ranging from bottle drives, raffles and bake sales to a photo booth with animals.

"We want the junior zookeepers to walk away from this experience already thinking about next year," said Laprade. "This program is a lot of work but is also lots of fun."

The Zoo in Forest Park, encompassing approximately five acres within Forest Park, is open daily now through Oct. 15, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Laprade noted that dates and times can be subject to change.

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