Profile: Anthony Nielsen, Lincoln Park Zoo animal keeper
SEIU Local 73 member Anthony Nielsen works as lead keeper of the Kolver Lion House and Seal Pool at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
It's not quite Jurassic Park, but this union job definitely keeps you on your toes.
“Animals are smart. You need to come to work with your game face on. These animals are smart, and they have all day to figure out how to mess with you,” said Anthony Nielsen, lead keeper of the Kovler Lion House and Seal Pool at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Nielsen has been at the zoo for 13 years, and has been lead keeper since 2009. He works with lions, tigers and other rare cats, as well as harbor seals, training them to voluntarily cooperate with routine medical exams.
He's an SEIU Local 73 member and said he's found his dream job: something physically as well as emotionally fulfilling.
“The fun part is animal training. We get them to offer a paw or limb for medication or a simple blood test, rather than tranquilizing them.” Nielsen has been training three harbor seals the zoo received in April from Sea World in Orlando.
“We train them to cooperate and voluntarily come to us, that was our first goal,” he said. “It's much less stressful on the animal, and it builds a trust between them and the keeper.”
Nielsen said a connection is definitely formed between human and animal, regardless of the species.
“You do build a bond with the animals, for better or for worse. You get up close and interact with them, and you're able to see their personalities. They're all unique.” he said. “There are years where nothing will happen, but this is a job where you deal with a lot of geriatric animals, and it's sad to see them go. Those are the worst days on the job.”
Nielsen has a BS in fisheries and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. His current domain is the 180,000 gallon Kovler Sea Lion Pool, kept in the chilly 50-60 degree range, and the Kovler Lion House, built in 1912 as the centerpiece of the zoo.
Due to constant vigilance, he doesn't have any war stories from his tenure at the zoo, and he doesn't want any, either.
“People think we go in with the animals all day long and play with them. They don't realize these are wild animals and they deserve respect,” he said.
His job entails training, feeding, and medicating the animals, and being knowledgeable enough to answer just about any question a guest can fire at him. He credits technology with making keeping track of all things animal much, much easier.
“Part of this job is education. Conservation is key, and it's really enjoyable,” he said. “All daily keeper reports are digital now, and it makes our lives nice here.”
He said when he started in 2000, all information was kept on paper. Now, reports can be emailed directly to the vet's office if needed, and that goes for digital pictures as well.
“It's great, if you have a skin condition on an animal you're looking after, you can quickly review past photos taken or you can send them out instantly. You can see the differences right away,” he said.
Nielsen served on the re-negotiation committee in 2012 for his union, and thanks them for keeping him in a job he loves.
“The negotiations went very smoothly, and with this economy, employment is great, let alone raises,” he said. “They have definitely taken care of us with our healthcare and a great work environment.”
He lives in the city, his wife is a Chicago Public Schools teacher, and he marched last summer in support of the teachers.
“I support the CPS, and I do see a lot of unions in Chicago. It's a great union town and I'm glad we all support each other,” he said.