From Racquel, who, as a zookeeper spends five days a week going hoof-to-antlers with Reticulated Giraffes, to her younger sister, Ryanne, a zookeeper at the Dallas Zoo, and their older sister, Rhiannon, a small animal veterinarian, all three Ardisana sisters, say they credit their dream careers, in part, to the hands-on experiences they had in the Youth Volunteer Corps at Chicago Zoological Society of Brookfield Zoo during high school.
Open to teens entering grades 9-12 in high school, the Ardisanas spent a year in an exhibit volunteering their time as a public education interpreter. The last two years of the enrichment program is spent behind the scenes with a mentor as a volunteer zookeeper-in-training, said Racquel, now 27.
With them growing up about one mile from the zoo, and through all that, Racquel says she got hooked on what she now refers to as “her gentle giants.”
“There are only about 80,000 giraffe,” she said. “It’s kind of like a silent crisis. They’re not officially listed as endangered yet, but their numbers are steadily declining.”
By the specs, male giraffes can weigh up to 4,260 pounds and stretch to over 17 feet tall, whereas “our geriatric female, Mithra, is 25 years old, and she is almost 14 feet,” said Racquel who began an internship at Brookfield Zoo in 2010, and last summer became a staff zookeeper.
Now on her watch are the painted dogs, giraffes, wolves, dwarf mongoose and klipspringers.
“It’s very hard for the average person to get on a plane and fly to Africa to see a giraffe or a painted dog, but they can come here and fall in love with the animals. Hopefully in the future more people will put money toward conservation to save giraffes in the wild,” Racquel said.
Her daily routine is diverse. It can include hoof trims for the older females, and feeding a diet of leaves to the herd. About 60 percent of her day is spent cleaning up after the animals.
And, each of the giraffes has its own distinctive personality.
During winter, Jasiri, a 10-year-old female, only walks through the hallway in one direction, and out one door.
“It is just a giraffe thing,” Racquel says, adding that when the zookeepers are “talking about Franny (24-year old mom whose daughter is 9 year old Arnieta), she will pretend not to be listening, and turn her head away,” Racquel explained. “And then, if we turn our head away, she will look at us, and if we catch her looking at us, she will swing her head away, as if ‘I wasn’t looking at you.'”
Two-year-old giraffe calf, Potoka, just wants to play.
“He will walk right up, sniff us, and be right next to us, because for him, we are just part of the herd. It is a little intimidating because when he was born he was only six feet tall,” she laughs. “Now, he is 10 feet tall.”
For the animal-loving Ardisana sisters, being involved with the enrichment programming of Brookfield Zoo, has laid the foundation for their future and has been a pivotal part of their past.
“My mom remembers that when I was four years old I said I was going to work here when I grew up. The zoo has always been part of my life,” Racquel said.