Meet Kesha Phares
Kids Kingdom Keeper
“Goats are highly underrated animals,” said Kesha Phares. As a keeper and internship coordinator in Kids Kingdom, she is one of five keepers that maintain the seven acres of land and care for the dozens of species that inhabit the children’s zoo. Among all of these, the goats are her favorite animals to work with. “The sea lions are awesome, but the goats are my favorite. Animals choose you. The goats chose me, and I have chosen them back,” Kesha said.
With patience, dedication, and lots of energy, Kesha has trained all six goats to do a wide variety of behaviors including painting, high-fiving, spinning the Terrible Towel, and reporting to their assigned seats for training sessions. As the goats arrived to the zoo two at a time, it made the process much easier than attempting to teach all six at once.
Training is an important part of a zookeeper’s duties. By teaching certain behaviors the keepers are able to make sure the animals are healthy, and perform routine physicals with minimal stress to the animals. Training is also a form of enrichment, or mental stimulation, for the goats. Almost every animal at the Zoo receives some kind of training.
Kids Kingdom interns often assist in the training process as well. As the Internship Coordinator for Kids Kingdom, Kesha is eager to teach the interns about animal training. “I like teaching people what I’ve learned, and I like watching them succeed,” said Kesha. “I want to give them an experience I would have wanted when I was starting out.”
To young people aspiring for a career like Kesha’s, she recommends doing everything possible to gain experience. She suggests volunteering at the Humane Society, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, or Animal Friends. There are also volunteer opportunities here at the Zoo as a Zoo Teen or a docent. She also recommends seeking out an internship either at the Zoo or the National Aviary. “Get as much animal experience as you possibly can,” she said. “It is a very competitive field. There are only about 200 zoos in the country.”
Kesha started working at the Zoo in 1999 as a seasonal yard attendant in Kids Kingdom supervising the slides, rides, and animal yards. From the first day on the job, she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to working with animals. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it for me. I love it.’” she said. She later worked as an intern with the big cats and rhinos, then moved up to assistant lead attendant, temporary keeper, and finally became a full time keeper.
While Kesha loves working with animals, one aspect of the job that can be particularly challenging is overcoming the weather. The animals need care every day of the year no matter what the conditions outside may be. “We are here at Christmas, and in blizzards,” she said. Kesha remembers the winter of 2010, often referred to as “snowmageddon,” when Pittsburgh experienced so much snow that the entire city shut down. Zookeepers who lived close enough to the Zoo walked to work in order to take care of the animals.
Of course, Kesha has much more pleasant memories of her time as a keeper. “All of the births have been really cool,” Kesha said. She has witnessed the births of many animals in her time as a keeper, including four sea lion pups, 13 baby beavers, baby river otters, and three silvery-cheeked hornbill chicks. The keepers leave most of the care of the babies to the animals, and only step in when needed. “The parents know what’s best,” Kesha said. In fact, sometimes the animals helped the keepers take care of the babies. When American beavers Pumpkin and Patch had two litters of kits, the keepers needed to bring the family inside at night so that prey animals, such as Hawks, would not eat the newborns. However, corralling the beaver kits is no easy feat. “Patch would help us,” Kesha said. “He would bring them to us.”
Other times, the keepers needed to help the animals with the process of having their young. When two silvery-cheeked hornbills arrived in 1999, the keepers were having a difficult time getting them to breed. “I was told repeatedly that they wouldn’t be successful breeders,” she said. Kesha tried changing their diet and adjusting the nest box. “Eventually, the female laid eggs.” Silvery-cheeked hornbills typically lay three eggs but only one chick usually survives. However, when the hornbills finally bred, two chicks hatched in the summer of 2013. Some Zoos pull the eggs from the nest to facilitate the process, but the keepers decided not to do that. “We let them do what they do best, and left the nest undisturbed,” she said.
In addition to her work as a Kids Kingdom keeper, Kesha was also the Vice President of the Pittsburgh American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) Chapter. The current Pittsburgh AAZK chapter was founded a little over two years ago, and Kesha was the Vice President for the first two years. “Any Zoo this large should be involved in AAZK,” said Kesha. The organization is dedicated to advancements in the animal keeping profession through education and the support of wildlife conservation projects.
“Our goal is to fundraise for nonprofits that have an impact on the animals and ecosystems that we are passionate about,” Kesha explained. Bowling for Rhinos is one event that occurs across the country every year dedicated to helping protect rhinos, whose numbers in the wild are dwindling due to the high value that has been placed on their horns. “The people who want these horns think they have magical or medicinal properties, but really rhino horns are made out of the same material your fingernails are made of,” said Kesha. “There are five species of rhinos, and all of them are endangered.”
Bowling for Rhinos is run by AAZK chapters, and is open to the public. The money raised from this event goes to conservation groups that protect areas where rhinos live. “Our fundraising provides food, housing, and weapons for the conservation staff to protect the rhinos from poachers.” Many other endangered species live in the same locations as Rhinos, so fundraising not only protects rhinos but also helps to conserve many other species as well. In 2014, Bowling for Rhinos raised over $500,000 across the country; of that money, the Pittsburgh chapter raised nearly $7,000. By the end of 2014, the Pittsburgh AAZK Chapter had raised just over a total of $13,000 for various conservation efforts.
“I am very proud of AAZK, and I love being a part of it,” said Kesha. “I want to help in any way I can, and AAZK gives me new chances to do so.”