What I Know Now: Zookeeper Michelle Johnson
I am Zookeeper 2 of Africa at the Montgomery Zoo, which means I am responsible for all the animals in the African realm, including giraffes, lions, cheetahs, chimpanzees, zebras, and pygmy hippos.
Michelle Johnson, Zookeeper
hometown: Prattville, Alabama
career: I am Zookeeper 2 of Africa at the Montgomery Zoo, which means I am responsible for all the animals in the African realm, including giraffes, lions, cheetahs, chimpanzees, zebras and pygmy hippos. Our priority is to make the animals as comfortable and happy as possible, but we also maintain the animals’ habitats and night quarters, observe the health of the animals, provide enrichment, train behaviors that allow for better medical care, and educate the public.
education: I attended Auburn University, where I received my Bachelors of Zoology/Pre-Vet. When I first started college, I wanted to be a veterinarian. As I started volunteering more with animals I knew I wanted to be a zookeeper, so I changed my major to zoology and started searching for opportunities that allowed me to work more with exotic animals. growing up: My mother is also an animal lover. We always had dogs and cats, but we also had other animals such as homing pigeons, hamsters, gerbils, snakes, chameleons, fish, finches, donkeys, horses, alpacas, and chickens…just to name a few. My dad was constantly asking, “What did you bring home this time?”
secret to success: Being willing to admit when I do not know the answer or when I am wrong has greatly contributed to my success. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one person knows everything. Being willing to admit you are human is something people can relate to, so by being honest you can earn respect.
parental impact: My parents (David Walter, Director of the state of Alabama’s Radiation Department, and Josine Walter, 4H Extension officer for Coosa and Chilton counties) were constantly encouraging me to follow my dreams. They were also very supportive when I wanted to gain experience in the animal/zoo field.
other influences: My grandfather, Bob Lloyd, never met a stranger, and was always kind and giving. He taught me that no matter how difficult you might think your life is, there is always someone that is going through more, so there is no reason to constantly be negative and bring yourself and others around you down.
advice for teens: You don’t have to know exactly what you want to be or do when you “grow up.” You can narrow down things that really make you happy and start there. Say you like science/ nature but also really like literature—take a few science courses and some English courses, and see what you might like better. If you still cannot decide, there is always the option of minoring, or even double majoring. A lot of people don’t declare their majors until their second or third year!
eye opener: In an animal-based field, you really need “people skills.” You need to be able to work in difficult situations with your coworkers and communicate well. One of the most important parts of my job is to educate the public. It is not about telling them they are wrong, but giving them a different point of view and teaching them something they didn’t know.
can’t live without:
downtime: I love going to painting classes. Of course, the ones where we are painting animals are the best!