Meet the Asia Keepers

To celebration National Zoo Keeper Week, we’ll be meeting the Virginia Zoo Keeper staff who dedicate their lives to taking care of our animals. Each day, you’ll get an in-depth look at the faces behind the animals and learn about their backgrounds, their favorite animals and some great experiences. First up, the Asia Keepers!


Who are the Keepers?

Chelsea Swain  Asia Zoo Keeper, 1 year of service

Ashley Yates  Asia Zoo Keeper, 1 year of service

Bethany Baran  Asia Zoo Keeper, 3.5 years of service

Martha Hamilton  Asia Zoo Keeper, 9.5 years of service

Jill Tarrant  Lead Zoo Keeper, 18+ years of service

What is your Educational Background:

Chelsea  I have a bachelor of Science in biology from Christopher Newport University and then interned at The Wildlife Center of Virginia and the Virginia Zoo. I volunteered at the Virginia Aquarium on the Dive Team and Stranding Team and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute with the cheetahs. Plus, I also worked as an educator at the Virginia Zoo and part-time keeper (before full-time) and Bird of Prey trainer at Busch Gardens.

Ashley  I have a bachelor of Science in biology from Longwood University, plus seven years keeper experience (including one internship) between the Palm Beach Zoo in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Va.

Bethany  I have a bachelor of Science in Evolutionary Biology with a minor in Social Psychology from Ohio State University. I have had several internships including the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (a big cat sanctuary) in Arkansas, cheetah internship at Wildlife Safari in Oregon and the Virginia Zoo Asia internship. I have also held a seasonal keeper position working with education animals at a small zoo outside of Chicago.

Martha  I have a bachelor of Arts with a minor in Psychology from the University of North Texas. I have been a Zoo Keeper since 1995, at institutes including the Cincinnati Zoo, Mill Mountain Zoo, North Carolina Zoo, Chimp Haven and finally the Virginia Zoo– since 2006. 

Jill  I have a bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from Old Dominion University. I volunteered at the Virginia Zoo while attending college and then started as a part-time keeper in 1997.


Tell us about a fun experience at the Virginia Zoo

Ashley  Working with the tiger cubs is a fun experience every day! They do something funny and different every day.

Bethany  Watching the red pandas during the occasional snow storm we get in Virginia. Red pandas are cold-loving animals and they get super excited and playful when it snows.

Chelsea  Every day you are guaranteed that something cute, funny, educational or entertaining will happen. I always love watching the Sun bears eat their bones. I get to see firsthand how they utilize their long tongue and claws to eat. Suntil typically gets the marrow out with her tongue and claws. Palu will too, but he always ends up breaking the bone by lifting it over his head and throwing it on the ground.

Martha  Having the orangutans get creative when trying to get attention from keepers (which can sometimes drive you crazy!) by clapping, making “raspberry”  sounds with their mouths, and many other funny ways. 

What is one thing people should know about the Virginia Zoo?

Ashley  We participate in many conservation projects to help save several species of animals who are threatened and endangered in the wild.

Bethany  The Zoo has been very supportive of us local Zoo Keepers from the Virginia Zoo, the Virginia Aquarium and the Virginia Living Museum forming a local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers (Tidewater AAZK). Through AAZK we help raise money for conservation efforts both nationally and internationally.


What’s one piece of advice for those wanted to be a Zoo Keeper?

Ashley  Gain as much experience as you can! Keep trying and never give up!

Bethany  Make sure you get a college degree and start volunteering at a zoo as soon as you can. There is a lot of competition in this field for jobs so the more experience you can, get the better.

Martha  Follow your heart. 

Who/what is your favorite animal and why?

Ashley  I am particularly fond of the tigers, red pandas, bears, otters and primates! I love working with a variety of different animals– they all are their own characters.

Bethany  I have always loved working with carnivores, and the Asiatic black bears are definitely one of my favorites.  Dara, the orangutan, has sneaked her way into being one of my favorite animals at the zoo as well.

Chelsea  Honestly, you fall in love with whatever animals you work closely with. You get to know their personalities and hold an appreciation for their species and what makes them so special. But if I had to choose, Palu, the Zoo’s Sun bear because he is silly and Dara, our orangutan, because she is very interactive, curious and smart.  It’s fun to see her think things through.

Martha  It is always changing and evolving as with any relationship, but currently Pepper, our orangutan, has seemed to warm up after four years of her being somewhat aloof, haha. It is quite rewarding when you have earned their trust. And the red pandas are always a favorite ... and Suntil the Sun bear. 

Photo 1 Red Panda Timmy

Any thing else you’d like to add?

Ashley  Happy National Zoo Keepers Week to all the keepers! Thank you everyone else for your recognition and support!

Bethany  Zoo Keepers love talking about their animals, especially their favorites, so if you ever have a question about an animal always feel free to ask!

Jill  The Virginia Zoo keepers are hardworking, passionate and dedicated to our animals. I appreciate all they do!!