What’s a typical day like for Emily Litka, a keeper at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend? She chops willow branches to feed to the ring-tailed lemurs. She plans enrichment activities for the Sichuan Takin, a creature from the goat antelope family. She talks to visitors about animals and conservation. And yes, she will admit, she cleans cages: “All day long, kids ask me if it’s fun working at the zoo. I tell them it’s a great job, if you don’t mind poop!”
If this is not your dream come true, then you probably weren’t a biology major like Litka. (She also graduated from Saint Mary’s with a second major in history in 2006.) “If it’s got hooves or horns or little fingers, I’m taking care of it,” says Litka, who wears a t-shirt, shorts, and waders to work every day. “What more could a girl who loves animals want?”
Long before she enrolled at Saint Mary’s, Litka wanted a career involving critters. In high school and college, she worked at a veterinary clinic, “so I knew what I was getting myself into. I enjoyed the medical aspect as well as taking care of animals, and making their lives fun and entertaining,” she says. As she considered careers, zookeeping seemed especially appealing because it involved interaction with healthy animals.
Litka’s biology studies gave her good grounding for her job at the zoo. Classes in anatomy, behavior, economic botany, and even human parasitology were especially valuable. “If an animal is hurting, I can see the problem and tell the vet about it,” she says. “The combination of those classes with my veterinary experience pretty much covered me across the board for the issues we see.”
A self-proclaimed “animal nut,” Litka would like to keep working in a zoo setting. Though the field is competitive, she thinks her education and experience give her an edge. While she is attached to every animal in the zoo, the hoofstock and small primates are her favorites. “I really like the little guys,” she says. “There’s something very cool about hanging out with animals that miss you when you’re on vacation.”