On a chilly February morning, Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden Zookeeper Shannon Irmscher stands in the outdoor exhibit of the zoo’s red panda Celeste. As the animal sleeps curled up at the top of a tree, Irmscher stands with her hand outstretched, offering a grape to Celeste, attempting to lure her awake and down the branches.
“She’s got one of the cutest faces you’ll ever see,” says Irmscher fondly. Eventually, Celeste unwinds herself, stretches along the tree limb, and crawls down to investigate Irmscher’s offering.
For the past seven years, Irmscher’s days have been filled with similar encounters at the Evansville zoo. But the Bedford, Indiana, native is quick to point out being a keeper is about more than feeding the animals. As an Indiana University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in animal behavior and psychology, her work includes keeping the animals healthy, enriching their lives in the zoo, and teaching visitors about the importance of the species that call Mesker home.
“If a member of the public sees me in an exhibit, of course I’m going to do everything I can to educate them on that species and create a more powerful interaction of them with the animal,” she says. “And I look at all of our animals as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild.”
Irmscher — who has worked at the Indianapolis, Louisville, Kentucky, and Jacksonville, Florida, zoos — begins her day at Mesker with checks of all of her animals before serving breakfast of some kind to most. Once she’s made her rounds — Irmscher works in the Discovery Center and the nocturnal exhibits in the Kley Building with birds, primates, and the smaller cats — she works to clean their holding spaces and on enrichment activities for the animals.
“Basically we try to encourage behaviors they would exhibit in the wild,” she says. “Monkeys spend a lot of their time foraging, so I might hide their food in a pile of hay or put it in a container where they have to work to get it.”
Irmscher also spends time as the species population manager for the Lesser Madagascar Hedgehog Tenrec and the Keel Billed Toucan. As one of the species population managers at Mesker, she monitors the genetics of the population for these two species in a software program. Her data then is used every three years in developing breeding and transfer plans for zoos across the nation.
“It’s fun,” says Irmscher. “Zoos can refer to (the data) and then follow the recommendations and make sure we have healthy populations genetically.”
For more information about Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, call 812-435-6143 or visit meskerparkzoo.com.