Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.
Name: Amanda Pippin
Title: Animal Trainer & Presenter II
In charge of: Ranger Rick's Backyard Safari encounter animals
Amanda began working in the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater gift shop in April 2003 never dreaming she would soon be handling hairy tarantulas and spiny hedgehogs while delivering animal facts to guests from all over the world. But three years later she transitioned to the Aquarium’s education department, first as an Education Gallery Associate and eventually earning her current role as Animal Trainer and Presenter in 2009. Pippin says, “I've always wanted to work with animals since as far back as I can remember. What's great is that I work with a wide variety of small animals.”
An average work day for Amanda begins around 7:30 AM. The Aquarium has around 115 animals that participate in education programs. Amanda is trained to take care of all of these amazing creatures, from a 14-pound Virginia Opossum to a tiny Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Amanda takes great pride in being part of a team that “does it all.” Each morning all the birds and mammals are weighed to make sure that each is at a healthy size. Their weights also determine how much food they will receive for the day.
After each weigh-in, it’s time for cleaning homes. Enclosures get special “maid service” each morning and are spot-checked throughout the day.
Enrichment activities are also very important for the animals. These exercises help keep the animals stimulated both physically and mentally. New toys are added, or old favorites are spruced up for the critters to enjoy. The enrichment items could be anything from wooden blocks that the parrots love to chew on, to a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper for the groundhog, to a portion of a brick for the snakes to rub against when shedding.
The reptiles, amphibians, and terrestrial invertebrates don't require as much care as the warm-blooded animals. Due to slower metabolic rates, some of the cold-blooded animals are only fed two or three times a week. In fact, some of the snakes are only offered a meal every 10 days. Think of how much money you'd save on groceries every year if you only had to eat three times a month! However, Pippin says it's still important that these animals are looked in on and accounted for each day. That includes providing fresh water and bedding.
The first animal encounter occurs in Ranger Rick's Backyard Safari at 10:30 am and these educational programs continue through 3:30 pm. Amanda often delivers these shows throughout the day. Animals are rotated frequently in the program schedule which gives them a nice balance of being “on-stage” and off.
The Aquarium offers bird shows six times each day. Pippin says, “I really enjoy going out and interacting with guests, especially if I can make someone smile or laugh! Most importantly, though, I want to educate guests about the animals that share this world with us.”
After programs are over for the day, Amanda does another round of checks on the animals in her care. Evening diets are served and water bowls are refreshed. Work areas are tidied up and data is recorded.
Delivering programs is just part of the routine. Pippin also spends a lot of her time at work training animals who appear in the Aquarium’s daily Ranger Rick and bird shows. All of the behaviors guests enjoy in these shows are natural behaviors brought out using positive reinforcement techniques, much like you would use to reward desired behavior in a cat or dog. So, when trainers see an animal perform a behavior they would like to encourage, the animal is rewarded. By rewarding good behavior, it's more likely that the behavior will increase. “Therefore you won't see a bird riding a bicycle on a high-wire in our shows. We want to everyone to better understand these animals, so we try to showcase their natural talents,” says Pippin.
Watch Amanda giving the hyancinth macaws a “shower”, an important enrichment activity for the birds.
When asked about the steps to take for a career in animal training, Amanda’s best advice is to get as much experience as possible. You can volunteer or complete an internship at a zoological facility. A four-year college degree is also beneficial – Pippin’s is in Anthropology. She also recommends practicing with family pets. She says, “It took me over 10 years to be where I am today, and I'm still learning how to be a better trainer and keeper.”
Got a question for Amanda? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with hashtag #QTheKeeper.