A Day In The Life Of A Memphis Zookeeper

Posted by Holly Whitfield | July 28th 2015 734 2

Last week was National Zookeeper Week. In honor of the holiday, I asked local zookeeper Bryan Summerford (aka @zooguybryan) to take over the I Love Memphis Instagram account for a day.

Memphis Zoo Skunk

In case you don't use Instagram or just missed Bryan's animal-filled day last Thursday, here's a slideshow recap of the photos he posted as he went about his day. Scroll down to learn more about Bryan and the Memphis Zoo in the Q&A.  

Bryan Summerford is a Midsouth-area native who has worked at the Memphis Zoo for nearly ten years. His official position is in Aquatics and Reptiles. Be sure to follow him on Instagram @zooguybryan.

Holly: Did you always want to be a zookeeper?
Bryan: I may not have known exactly that I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was a kid, but I've always known that I wanted to work with animals. And I love all sorts of animals. I had everything as a kid, from hamsters to snakes to fish. It took me a while to get to snakes, as my mom was very iffy on that. But I eventually won her over.

Holly: How did you get started at the Zoo? 
Bryan: I studied biology in school, and my first big experience with exotic animals was a sort of exchange internships where I worked at a zoo in Thailand. When I came back, I started volunteering at the Memphis Zoo through the docent program. Then there was a job opening in the Animal Health Department and I started working there. It was a very good background and quite an experience for a green keeper. I worked with everything from polar bears to giraffes, birds, you name it. 

Holly: What do you do now? 
Bryan: My department has the Aquarium, the Reptile House, as well as Animals of the Night, and because of my varied background, I can fill in where needed. Sometimes I'm in the bat flight area, sometimes I'm in the reptile house helping out – I love reptiles and amphibians. But my day-to-day mostly is in the aquarium. I also am taking care of two Nile crocs that aren't on display right now. They'll eventually be in the Zambezi River exhibit, but right now they're still behind the scenes. 

Holly: What's a regular day like? Do you ever have a regular day?
Bryan: Generally, my regular day is coming in, checking on the animals, making sure all the mechanical things, tanks and pumps and such, are working in the aquarium. Then you get into general husbandry, feeding your fish and other animals in the building and routine cleanup.

But no two days can be the same. I'll come in, and we'll have to do a physical on a crocodile, so we'll have to get a team to jump on the crocodile and move him so he can safely be examined. Or I may get a called to go help out in the Reptile House to do the venomous snake show for them. We have a show we do on the weekends to help educate the public about venomous snakes in the area. 

Holly: Do you have a favorite animal? Am I allowed to ask that question?
Byran: I think I may be in a unique category as far as zookeepers go. Some folks say, "I'm a marine mammal keeper, that's what I do, that's what I love.". For me, I love working with all animals. Finding a favorite depends on what I'm working with at that time. 

For example, there was a time I worked in nocturnal for a while and bonded with some of the mammals. There's a little hand raised bush baby that I love; his name is Chewy. There's a skunk I've spent a lot of time with, too, named Calvin.

Holly: Tell me about your striped newt project.
Bryan: I breed endangered newts and we are rearing their young to release into the wild. that's a very important project for me and it takes a lot of my focus. (Ed. Note: you can read more in the caption to the newt photo above.)

Holly: What's the most exotic animal you've had as a pet? 
Bryan: I had an albino burmese python; he was quite large. I had dart frogs. I also have leopard geckos at home, which I breed and sell as pets. It's just kind of fun thing I do on the side. You'd think the last thing I'd want to do when I get home is take care of animals, but it's fun.

Holly: What's one thing you wish people knew about zookeepers?
Bryan:  A lot of people think that zookeepers play with the animals all day, but that's not our job. This doesn't mean we don't get to have fun with the job; we love these animals and that's why we do it.

But these aren't our pets, we're here to take care of them, display them to the public for education, and make sure they have the best lives possible.

Memphis Zoo - Hippo

Ed Note: The Memphis Zoo is currently working on a new exhibit: the Zambezi River, which will house three hippos, Nile crocs, flamingos, and Okapi (a relative of the giraffe). You know how in the Northwest Passage you can view the polar and grizzly bears while they swim through underwater viewing areas? They'll have that so you can see the hippos swimming in action. 

The Zambezi River exhibit should to open in early 2016. Stay up-to-date by following the Zoo on Twitter, Faceobook, and Instagram

This was the first-ever I Love Memphis Instagram "takeover" and I hope to do more of these in the future so you can get different perspectives on the city. What do you think? 

Do you have a favorite Instagram account or someone you think has an interesting life and can take great photos? Tell me about it!


Author: Holly Whitfield

I write about what’s going on with Memphis music, food, arts, events, sports, people, and culture. Memphians love Elvis and barbeque with a passion that must be seen to be believed, but there is so much more to this place.

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  1. ruthie says:

    Love all your information Bryan. My question is have you ever been injured from animals? Bitten. Etc.?

    • Holly Whitfield says:

      Ruthie! I actually asked Bryan this but it didn’t make it into the final post. I’ll share with you the transcription from our interview about this very question!

      Holly: Have you ever been bitten?

      Bryan: I’ve never been bitten by anything super dangerous. As a zookeeper, you strive to not get bitten by anything. But bites are going to happen. Most of the time it’s from small things, I’ve gotten small snake bites from little rat snakes and a few other things. It’s good to not be afraid, but be cautious. We do everything we can to prevent that, such as handling snake to be a little aggressive with snake hooks and preventative things like that. 

  2. Julie Bramlett says:

    Love this and Bryan too! He's the most passionate person I know who truly cares about everything and everyone. Great interview and loved the pictures! You couldn't have picked a better person to show the world!

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