Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Think of it as zoo school – a way for animal keepers and aquarists at the ABQ BioPark to acquire additional knowledge and skills in animal care and maintenance, move into new and higher job classifications, and earn higher pay.
The recently launched Animal Care Excellence program, or ACE, consists of workshops, seminars, online courses and hands-on training, explained Brandon Gibson, deputy director of the city Department of Arts and Culture.
Up until now, there were just two job levels available to each of the BioPark’s 65 zookeepers and aquarists. With the implementation of ACE, two additional classifications for each job have been added, Gibson said.
Keepers often stayed in lower classification jobs for protracted periods “and, if there wasn’t an opening, and if they wanted to advance their careers, they’d move on to other AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions,” he said. “Now, they have four levels, and if they work hard and complete the education and training, and demonstrate their skills, they’re going to get promoted.”
The starting salary for zookeepers and aquarists is $37,190 a year. Through ACE, they can move up and, on reaching level four, earn $46,384 a year, Gibson said.
ACE was put together with the assistance of the San Diego Zoo’s Global Academy and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; it was sanctioned by the city of Albuquerque and Local 624 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing zookeepers and aquarists, Gibson said.
The city has allocated $328,000 toward the cost of upgrading the classifications and pay of zookeepers and aquarists, he said.
Over the past year, the BioPark Zoo has had to deal with the deaths from a shigella bacteria outbreak of three siamangs, a western lowland gorilla and a chimpanzee, as well as the deaths of two elephants from elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.
The ACE program was, however, not a response to that; rather, it has been more than two years in the making, Gibson said.
“We’ve been planning this for a long time and were in talks with the union, the administration and the (City) Council to make this happen,” he said.
The program demonstrates that “we have the highest level of standards, practices and philosophies when it comes to providing care for the animals here at the Albuquerque BioPark,” he said.
Valarie Thietten, the BioPark’s senior zookeeper for carnivores, said a program such as ACE has been needed for years.
“We had entry-level positions and senior positions,” she said. “A lot of folks came in at that entry level, but we rarely had senior positions available and, when a senior position did open up, all those people stuck at entry level applied.”
Now, even if people can’t land one of the few senior positions, they can still move up in job classifications, said Thietten, who also serves as the local union steward and is on a working group helping to develop the ACE curriculum.
“We have a skill that doesn’t allow us to move around the city like plumbers and electricians, and so forth. We’re zookeepers and this is the only zoo for the city,” she said. “If you wanted to advance, you’d have to leave the state, so we had a high turnover and were losing great people.”
The ACE program is a win-win for everybody, Thietten said. The BioPark retains more people who get more training as they move into higher job classifications and earn more money.
“It makes them feel more appreciated,” she said, which ultimately benefits the animals “and is the reason we’re all here.”