2019 Zoo Keeper Olympics

There’s no doubt that some of the requirements to be a Zoo Keeper include physical fitness and wit. It is mandatory for Keepers to be on their feet most of the day and they often have to do physically daunting tasks, such as picking up heavy feed sacks or hay bales, and not to mention all of the walking they can do in a single shift – anywhere between eight and 15 miles a day! Keepers also have to be patient, smart and adaptive so they can continue giving the animals the best care possible. Our Keepers prove they can meet the demands of the job, but how do they compare to other Zoo Keepers? Every year Zoo Keepers from local zoological organizations apart of the American Association for Zoo Keepers join forces to compete against each other in an epic battle – the Zoo Keeper Olympics.

This year, the Virginia Zoo (VZ) Keepers formed a team and competed against another team, regarded as the “Non-Zoo” team, which consisted of Keepers from the Virginia Aquarium, Virginia Living Museum and Maymont in Richmond. Both teams braved the heat and competed in seven different games, which tested their physical abilities, artistic skills, animal knowledge and capability to work as a team. So who came out on top and took home the grand prize: the golden shovel?

The Olympics started off with a life-sized version of the classic Hungry Hungry Hippos game. Keepers split into two pairs per team, designated the “hippo” and the helper and gave it their best shot at capturing the most balls in their giant buckets. With nearly twice as many balls as their competitors, the first win of the 2019 Keeper Olympic Games went to the VZ Keepers.

The next game was all about harnessing your inner artsy animal to Paint Like a Seal. A Keeper from each team was given the task of painting a Malayan tapir using a paintbrush, but no hands. Pinnipeds don’t have hands, they paint using their mouths! Keepers painted their masterpieces then everyone voted on the best painting, ultimately choosing the Non-Zoo team as the winner of this challenge.

After a hearty meal, refreshments and a chance to jump around like kids in the bounce house, Keepers’ next task was Animal Charades. Keepers from each team were given different animals to re-enact, without making noises, and the team that guessed all of their animals correctly first wins. The Non-Zoo team was efficient and quick, securing the win.


Then it was time to pair up for Ping-Pong Pick-up, a game that simulates what Keepers already know how to do: clean exhibits by picking up poop. Keepers had to use rakes and shovels to pick up as many ping pong balls as they could in one minute. The team with the most balls wins, which in this case was the VZ Keepers.

The next event in the Keeper Olympics was the most challenging. A pair from each team had to work together for a behavior training exercise. One Keeper from each pair had to train a new behavior to their partner, but couldn’t use most words or movements. The “trainer” was only allowed to positively reinforce their “animal” with a clicker, Hershey Kisses as treats and by saying “good job”. Once the “animal” completed the behavior, they also had to tell the “trainer” what the final behavior was. The first team to complete the behavior training won the challenge, with the Non-Zoo team winning this round.

The following game was the Puzzle Feeder challenge. This involves one Keeper from each team attempting to retrieve the Hershey Kisses from the enrichment items the fastest. Although the task at hand seemed easy, the size of the treats in relation to the holes in the feeders made it tricky. Ultimately the Non-Zoo team finished first and the chocolate treats were passed around as a victory prize.

To test their artistic abilities once again, Keepers were given the task of sculpting meat, which was not suitable to feed to the animals, into a rhinoceros. Two Keepers from each team put on gloves and began crafting their rhinos, some adults and some calves, and then all of Keepers voted on their favorite of the four masterpieces. The VZ team was chosen as the victors for having the most votes.

The Olympics was turning out to be a close race, with the VZ team losing by one game. If they could win the last challenge, the Feed Sack Race, they could force the competition into a tiebreaker. But did they do it? Keepers from both teams hopped as hard and fast as they could in their tiny sacks, tagging their teammates along the way. In the end, the VZ team undoubtedly crossed the finish line first, knocking down the box tower along the way and sending the Olympics into a tiebreaker round.

Unexpectedly, what was once a runaway game for the Non-Zoo team, the Olympics champion would now be decided by another round of Animal Charades. As Keepers from both teams did their best animal impersonations, only one team could win the golden shovel. For the second year in a row, the Non-Zoo team took first prize, which of course also comes with major bragging rights. No matter who won or lost, all Keepers had fun, but the VZ team is already determined to be triumphant next year.

The Keeper Olympics was not only a great way for Keepers from multiple organizations to spend some quality time together, but it also gave them the opportunity to come together as an AAZK Chapter to support conservation programs. Keepers spared a few moments in between games to choose the Wildlife S.O.S. as the conservation organization to donate to in honor of National Keeper Week.