December 18, 2018

7 Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask an Elephant Keeper

Get to know Barb Junkermeier, one of the elephant keepers responsible for getting Jake and Chuck settled into their new home at Denver Zoo.

By Lindsey Kirkman, Assistant Curator of Pachyderms

By now you’ve probably heard our BIG news—we recently welcomed two new Asian elephants, Jake and Chuck, who joined Groucho, Bodhi and Billy in Toyota Elephant Passage. Elephant Keeper Barb Junkermeier, who has worked at Denver Zoo for more than 22 years, is one of the keepers responsible for getting Jake and Chuck settled into their new home and introducing them to the rest of the herd. She’s also crazy fun to work with, loves to prank and gross out her coworkers and is known as the “vampire” of the team because of her proficiency with animal blood draws. I talked to her about caring for North America’s largest bachelor herd of Asian elephants and if it’s harder to raise two teenage boys or five elephants.

How excited are you that Denver Zoo is now home to the largest bachelor herd of Asian elephants in North America?

Extremely! Toyota Elephant Passage was specifically designed and built to support the Asian elephant population in North American zoos, and establish Denver Zoo as a worldwide leader in the care of male Asian elephants. That vision is a reality now that Jake and Chuck are here.

Did you always want to be a zookeeper?

No. When I was little I wanted to be a nurse, but then decided I wanted to work with animals. Becoming a veterinarian was more schooling than I wanted to do, so I majored in wildlife management in college, and then had an opportunity to do an internship at Indianapolis Zoo. That’s when I decided that being a zookeeper was the career for me!

What are you most proud of in your career as an elephant keeper?

Being a part of advancing Denver Zoo’s elephant program to where it is today. Things have evolved so much since when I first started here 22 years ago. Now we’re on the forefront of advancing the care of Asian elephant and researching the socialization of males. That’s really what Toyota Elephant Passage was built for—to be the best all-male elephant habitat in the world, and to push the envelope to see what we can accomplish with bulls.

What’s the worst part of being a zookeeper?

Losing an animal is the hardest part of my job. It’s very emotional and difficult. And usually you have more time with the larger animals because you can see it in them when their health is declining. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

You’re also a mom. What’s harder, raising two teenage boys or taking care of five elephants?

Raising kids—especially teenagers—is harder because they talk back to you and they don’t always do what they say.  Even though the elephants don’t either, you can work around the elephants.  But when the kids won’t do it, they won’t do it, and they get more and more stubborn with age.

We care for our animals 365 days a year. Do you miss having holidays at home?

Well, since I never really had holidays since I’ve become a mom, it’s no big deal.  My kids are accustomed to it. We’ve managed it. Either they all get up bright and early before I come to work, or we do it when I get home.

Did you ever trick your kids and tell them it was Christmas when it wasn’t?

I didn’t. I held true and fast!  And what was cool was going, “Here’s all your presents. Dad, have fun putting them all together and putting the batteries in! Peace out, I’m going to work!”

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