HOME-GROWN DR. DOOLITTLE

rmed with a target pole and a bag of meat, Jill Burbank walked toward the tiger exhibit at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Maxim, a 340-pound, 2½-year-old Amur tiger, caught sight of the senior carnivore/marine mammal keeper and ran toward the glass enclosure.

That quickly drew a crowd of people, who used their cameras and cellphones to take pictures and capture video as Maxim put his big paws on the glass and followed every move Burbank made.

Burbank rewarded him with meat, which was gobbled up in seconds.

That’s just a part of the 28-year-old Seymour native’s daily duties at the popular Indianapolis attraction, where she also works with brown bears, muntjacs, red pandas, polar bears, sea lions and dolphins.

Burbank, who now lives in Edinburgh, said she loves sharing what she knows with the public, especially about the endangered Amur tigers.

“When you find those people that really are interested in what you are saying and you can tell you are teaching them new things about the animals that they never knew before, that maybe nudges them a little bit to help with conservation of these guys because these guys are ambassadors for their species out in the wild that are endangered and their habitats are being cut down,” she said.

“It’s our job to take that to the public and tell them why these animals are so great so maybe it kind of gets the ball rolling,” she said.

Burbank has been in her position at the zoo for five years. Landing that job came after doing volunteer work and internships there while she was a biology student at Indiana University in Bloomington.

After graduating from Seymour High School in 2005, she started at IU studying physical therapy. She changed majors after her sophomore year.

“I always wanted to work with animals. I guess I didn’t think it was very practical, so I chose physical therapy,” she said. “I started working at PetSmart in the grooming salon during college, and I think that’s kind of when I realized I wanted to work with animals every day.”

A PetSmart co-worker had worked at the zoo and told her the best way to get a job there is to volunteer or intern, so she started volunteering at the zoo on the weekends in the Encounters area.

“You kind of have to prove that you can do all the grunt work because that’s most of what we do anyway,” she said. “School doesn’t really prepare you too much for zookeeping. It’s mainly all hands-on experience that you learn from.”

Burbank graduated from IU in 2009 and worked into a seasonal position in Encounters before landing an internship at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago for six months. In January 2011, a full-time keeper position in the tigers area opened at the zoo.

“I was going to do internships wherever needed to get a job in a zoo, and I never thought I would be able to be so lucky to stay around home and work at the Indianapolis Zoo,” she said. “I thought maybe, eventually I would end up here, fingers crossed. But I thought for sure I’d have to take something out of state first. I just feel really lucky that it happened so quickly.”

For the first month, Burbank trained in the large carnivore area, feeding, shifting and building a relationship with the animals.

She said she never has been afraid to work in that area because it’s considered protective contact, and there is always a barrier between her and the animals. In the holding area, they are separated by metal mesh; and on exhibit, there are windows, electrified wire and mesh.

“There are a lot of stories of people hand-raising these (tigers) from cubs and being free contact with them as adults, but you can never really take their wild instincts out of them,” she said. “You never know what is going to trigger those instincts; and when it does, you won’t be able to stop them. So for our safety, guests’ safety and the animals’ safety, we never go in with large carnivores. That is why their training is so important.”

Muntjac, red panda, seal, sea lion and walrus are considered free contact, so Burbank can be right in with them.

“But we are still very aware of their behavior and attitude because these animals can still hurt us,” she said. “An angry 1,500-pound walrus can be dangerous, so that’s why it’s so important for us to really know the animals and observe their behavior. That way, we can tell if it’s safe to enter their environment or not.”

Most training is done before or after the zoo’s operating hours in the back of the enclosures. That’s also when keepers learn the personalities of the animals.

“Tigers are cats, so they are like, ‘Oh, you’re here. That’s fine. Give me food, and go away.’ Sometimes, when I call them for their chats, they look at us and lay back down,” she said.

“Bears are so smart, and they are interactive,” she said. “You don’t even have to have food. They always want to come see you. They are always right at the mesh following you, watching what you do. It’s fun to give them enrichment even though they figure it out in five minutes.”

When she works with marine mammals, Burbank said, they have higher metabolisms and eat at least three times a day, so they are more food-motivated.

A keeper also has to work with the animals so they present different parts of their bodies for examination, including body checks, voluntary blood draws from their tails, injections in their shoulders and eye checks and drops. In the near future, they also will be working with them on ultrasounds and X-rays.

A keeper’s job also consists of cleaning enclosures and doing perimeter and lock checks.

Of all the animals she works with on a daily basis, Burbank said, she likes tigers the best. But it’s sad to note that all six species are endangered, and there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, including 2,500 Bengal and 400 Amur.

Most of it is due to habit loss and, even more so, poaching, Burbank said.

“Unfortunately, some people believe in using parts of the tiger’s body for traditional medicine and remedies,” she said. “Every part of the tiger can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. They are also considered a status symbol of wealth among many Asian cultures.”

Burbank said the World Wildlife Fund has a campaign called Save Tigers Now, in which it teamed up with actor Leonardo DiCaprio and set a goal of doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2022.

Burbank started a fundraiser through the American Association of Zookeepers chapter in Indianapolis called Tailgating for Tigers. In their first event in September, they raised $1,500.

“We plan on doing it again this year and will hopefully raise even more,” she said. “I hope that if people can get involved in this and other campaigns that the number of tigers will be able to grow again. It would be a shame for such amazing creatures to be gone forever.”

Burbank said she wants to continue working at the zoo as long as her body can take it because it is a physical job.

To anyone considering working at a zoo, she suggests beginning as a volunteer as soon as possible.

“The zoo has a great zoo teen program where kids can start volunteering at 16,” she said. “They are not doing animal care work, but they are learning about all of the animals and presenting information to the public, which is great experience. At 18, they can become adult volunteers and do more animal care work.”

Most of those jobs are unpaid, but it gets your foot in the door, Burbank said.

“You have to prove yourself through volunteering and internships that you are a hard worker and able to do all of the grunt work because that’s about 75 percent of our job,” she said. “I think a lot of people assume they will get to play with animals all day, so it’s good to do internships and see what the job really entails.”

That’s the path Burbank took, and it worked out well for her.

“Although it’s a lot of hard work, long hours and you don’t get weekends off, it is completely rewarding knowing that you are making these animals’ lives better,” she said.

Burbank file

Name: Jill Burbank

Age: 28

Hometown: Seymour

Residence: Edinburgh

Education: Seymour High School (2005); Indiana University (2009, bachelor’s degree in biology)

Occupation: Senior carnivore/marine mammal keeper at the Indianapolis Zoo

Family: Parents, Ed and Jeanette Burbank of Seymour; siblings, Kate (Ben) Biggs of Fairland and Doug (Michelle) Burbank of Valparaiso; two nieces; and one nephew

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.