While standing atop a tree house on the Girl Scouts’ Balboa Park campus last week, Facilities Manager Eric Williams pointed out that you could often hear the San Diego Zoo’s elephants from the spot.
So today, I headed over to the zoo to meet with Ann Alfama, a lead keeper who takes care of the elephants and polar bears, and who’s also been known to feed the lions.
Alfama grew up in Minnesota with dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but eventually had a change of heart, deciding that she didn’t only want to care for sick animals. Alfama earned a degree in exotic animal training and management and the rest was history.
Friday, I photographed Alfama outside the Elephant Odyssey exhibit. Afterwards, I asked her a series of questions that will lead me to next week’s installment of the San Diego People Project.
Name: Ann Alfama
Occupation: Lead keeper at San Diego Zoo
Part of town: Linda Vista
How does one become a lead keeper?
Well, I grew up in Minnesota, the oldest of six kids. And I don’t know if it was that that made me decide that I really enjoyed spending time with animals. I’d sleep in the doghouse — maybe it was just to get a little privacy, I don’t know.
You literally used to sleep in the doghouse?
I would. I’d go hang out with the dog. It was in Minnesota, so granted it was only during summertime when I did it. But yeah, oldest of six kids. So you can probably imagine you need some alone time. And just, the fur, the warmth, the quiet, the breathing. I don’t know what it was. I’d just lay in the doghouse with our black lab and my parents would come looking for me.
What was the dog’s name?
That dog was named Sam.
Oh, whaddaya know?
And so were your parents encouraging of the idea?
They were super encouraging to a point. Because I would have had every animal there was. If it was a baby squirrel, if it was a snake — you name it, I brought it in.
I went through a big period of time when we moved to town where we didn’t have pets. It was just too much. Finally when I was in high school, they let me get a dog again. And it was just downhill from there. Now I’ll usually end up with one of everything.
Otherwise, my parents were very supportive. My mom would drive me out to the country when I was in eighth grade — I wasn’t old enough to work legally — and she would drive me out to a country vet and say, “Hey my daughter really wants to be a vet. Can she spend the summer riding around with you?” So literally, I’d spend my summer riding around in the cab of a truck with a large animal vet, going to farms. And he’d let me put my arm up an elephant’s rear end.
Excuse me, not an elephant. A cow’s rear end. To see if they were pregnant.
So you eventually studied exotic …?
I got an associates of science in exotic animal training and management. Isn’t that a mouthful?
It sounds like an exotic degree to get.
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I’ve worked with primates, birds, reptiles, sea lions, hoofstock, so lots of different stuff.
So now as lead keeper, you’re in charge of what animals?
I get to assist the keepers in Elephant Odyssey and polar bears in their daily care of the animals. So if they need me to help hands-on or need help organizing, that’s what I do.
Did you have to work down in the trenches to get to be lead keeper?
Oh yeah, absolutely. This is still the trenches, trust me. I don’t have much nails and I get dirty.
Trenches doesn’t sound very good, because this is great. I love being in the trenches. If I’m not dirty then I’m not happy. If they need me to feed the lions, I feed the lions.
How do you feed a lion?
Very carefully. Very carefully.
We are able to feed our lions and usually the regular keepers feed the male lion, because he’s a little bit more picky about who he associates with. And I’ll feed the female lion. But we have mesh, so we make a little meatball and we push it and they take their tongue and just pull it from us.
That sounds terrifying.
No, it’s not terrifying at all. It’s great.
I completely understand that people might not be comfortable with that. But just being that close and looking them in the eyes and feeling their breath on your face, is amazing.
How do you overcome that fear?
I don’t know that I ever felt that kind of fear.
You told me a couple of times that your nails are all messed up. But meanwhile, the elephants are getting pedicures?
Oh yeah. I know, it’s really bad. Their nails look better than ours. If they need it they get foot soaked, they get their nails filed. They get their cuticles trimmed and moisturized. They get their feet scrubbed every day in special soap. Yeah. It’s just wrong.
I asked the last person this. Do you have any good war stories?
When I say war stories, I mean zoo stories. But, you know, anything where you’d be sitting around a bar and someone would say “Oh you’re a zoo keeper” and you’d say, “Yeah, let me tell you.”
Normally people don’t want to sit near zookeepers in bars because usually we start talking shop and it’s usually pretty graphic.
But, war stories? (Long pause)
You know, I’ve got a 20-inch gash on my leg. It was before I worked here at the San Diego Zoo. A big feral boar with big tusks coming out decided to swing his head and give me a pretty good gash. But otherwise I’m basically injury free.
Please contact Sam Hodgson directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5664 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/samuelhodgson.