Hannah Fullmer has been working around exotic animals for over eight years and is now the Lead Keeper at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown. (Photo by Emily Brooks)

Hannah Fullmer has been working around exotic animals for over eight years and is now the Lead Keeper at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown. (Photo by Emily Brooks)

by Emily Brooks

When Hannah Fullmer, 28, was a child, she wanted nothing more than to be a veterinarian, but she soon came to a stark realization: as a vet, she’d almost always be spending time with animals only when they were sick. “I decided I wanted to be a part of illness prevention instead,” Fullmer said.

So she began searching for an alternative. “Once I started looking into the various animal care options, I found my way into zookeeping,” she said. “I learned about all the conservation plights and endangered animals and how much is involved in being a zookeeper, and I was just hooked.” Fullmer, whose hometown is Mays Landing, NJ, enrolled in the Animal Biotechnology and Conservation program at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown with a focus on Zoo Science.

Graduating in 2008, Fullmer has been working around exotic animals for over eight years, and while various internships and jobs have allowed her to spend time in six zoos, for the past year Hannah has found her home as the Lead Keeper at Elmwood Park Zoo, 1661 Harding Blvd. in Norristown. Along with her keeper responsibilities, Fullmer also serves as co-chair on the zoo’s safety committee and Behavioral Husbandry Coordinator.

Elmwood Park Zoo was established in 1924 when a plot of land and some white-tailed deer were donated to the Borough of Norristown by a private landowner. Focusing primarily on North American species, the zoo showcased animals like deer, bears, peacocks and rabbits. In 1985, the Norristown Zoological Society became an official non-profit organization, and assumed control of Elmwood Park Zoo from the Borough of Norristown.

At that time that a long-term plan for the zoo’s expansion was developed. The grounds expanded from eight to 16 acres, adding more exotic exhibits and interactive features. While still focused primarily on North American animals, the Elmwood Park Zoo has added South and Central American animals as well as African species, the latest and most popular being the interactive giraffe exhibit.

Today, the zoo welcomes approximately 130,000 guests a year but maintains the community-driven atmosphere upon which it was established over 90 years ago. For Fullmer, this dedication to community and high quality standards is what makes Elmwood Park a zoo she is proud to work for. “The fact that it has been able to maintain such a community atmosphere is really neat,” Fullmer said.

“The zoo itself may be older, but it stays focused on new ideas, needs and opportunities. The administration is constantly pushing the envelope to make the zoo a better experience. That includes the experience of our guests but also making the existence of the animals here as high-quality as possible.”

And with almost 300 animals on the zoo’s property, providing quality care takes a lot of hard work. For Fullmer and her fellow zoo keepers, a day at Elmwood Park is no walk in the park. A typical day starts at 7 a.m. with a walk-through of the zoo, making sure everything looks the way it’s supposed to look; that no animal, fence or habitat has changed from the way it was left the night before.

After that, it’s routine animal husbandry: feeding, cleaning and daily care; removing waste, providing maintenance on the exhibits and monitoring the psychological and physical well-being of all the exotic animals. “We have to be able to do just about anything,” Fullmer said, “from repairing a broken fence to helping a lost child.

“People hear the word ‘zookeeper’ and think we get to come in and play with animals all day. I love my job, but there is much more to it than playing with animals…Sure I wish I could hug and love some of the exotic animals we have here (the squirrel monkeys are one of her favorites), but even though these animals are in captivity, they are still wild animals and are still dangerous. There’s a big difference between desensitizing an animal and domesticating it. We want our animals to maintain natural behaviors, and that means keeping a distance.”

Yet there are still many ways the zookeepers — and guests — can interact with the animals at Elmwood Park Zoo. One primary focus, for example, is on the interaction of children with animals and on parents being with their children when they have that experience. “To inspire kids, the experience has to be something they remember… Elmwood Park does a really good job trying to create that, while also keeping in mind the safety of both the children and animals.”

With petting and feeding stations, educational presentations and a zip line that runs over the grounds, Elmwood Park Zoo is open seven days a week from 10 to 5. The zoo offers group visits, educational programs, shows, etc. More information about upcoming events, including their annual Octoberfest on Sunday Sept. 14, visit www.elmwoodparkzoo.org or call 610-277-3825.