Cool Jobs: Meet a zookeeper at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

It's no secret that the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is one of the top zoos in the nation, but the lesser-told side of the story is that of the zookeepers and other professionals who make the magic happen.

While the animals are naturally the main attraction for visitors, a lot goes on behind the scenes at the zoo, where staff members work tirelessly to maintain the facilities and impact the welfare of endangered wildlife worldwide.

For nearly 30 years, Zookeeper Dave Messman has been among the staff at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, and he says he's developed professionally as the zoo has grown. What started as a part-time job in high school for him evolved into his full-time career.

Although Messman is not formally educated in zoology, he says the on-the-job experience has prepared him for success in the role. Plus, working with younger and ambitious staff over the years has been a boon to his career.

“You’ve got to be on your toes because there's a lot of very educated people wanting to work with animals, and they're super qualified to do it at a lot younger age,” he says.

In addition to the positive atmosphere, the job brings something different every day because life can be unpredictable when you're working with animals and new visitors.

"There's nothing boring about it at all," he says.

On a day-to-day level, he is charged with looking after various members of the animal kingdom, specifically the reptiles, amphibians, and insects. His greatest pleasure, though, has been caring for the Komodo dragon. 

"When we opened the Indonesian rainforest section of the zoo, I got to go with our curator at that time to Cincinnati to pick her up from there,” Messman says. “She was only three months old, and now she's 25 years old. It’s been fun to work with her all these years. But, you know, other different animals come and go, and you have favorites.”

Messman is no stranger to forging bonds with the animals. But there’s more to it than just being an animal lover, he says. Both hard and soft skills are needed to be good at his job. His advice to aspiring zookeepers is to be able work on their own, be motivated to work hard, and to challenge themselves.

The job requires a great deal of research into animal welfare and biology. Training and enrichment opportunities come with the territory, too.

Messman works year-round, even when the zoo is closed to the public. He says there’s also an element of preservation and conservation to the job that patrons might not be aware of.

“There's some spots around the zoo that might look like they're overgrown, like, underneath our Sky Safari ride (in the African Journey area),” Messman explains. “There's a hill, and it's got a lot of native wildflowers on it, which are good for the pollinators. We keep those spots hidden a little bit, but if you can keep certain areas looking natural then, the animals will be more at home (similar to in their natural habit)."

Messman and his team take pride in the opportunity to protect wildlife so that it’s around for generations to come. For example, he says the plight of the sea turtle is a hot-button issue, as many are threatened or endangered. 

The World Wildlife Fund says nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as endangered—killed for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells.

"Sea turtles suffer from poaching and over-exploitation," the Fund says. "They also face habitat destruction and accidental capture in fishing gear. Climate change has an impact on turtle nesting sites. It alters sand temperatures, which then affects the sex of hatchlings.”

For these reasons, Messman is happy the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a stakeholder in the turtles’ conservation. 

“We have a really good program with breeding those here, and so we've hatched out quite a few,” he says. “Those are the kinds of highlights that are pretty neat to see.”

Cool Jobs is a feature on Input Fort Wayne, highlighting members of the northeast Indiana community who have unique or interesting jobs here. To suggest an idea, email [email protected]

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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