Linda Roberts is a long-time Zoo employee who knows nearly all there is to know about primates. She oversees the Fort Worth Zoo’s World of Primates exhibit, which houses ape and monkey species, such as the black-and-white colobus monkey and the western lowland gorilla. Read below to learn Linda’s story and how you might be able to find yourself in her shoes someday.
How long have you worked at the Fort Worth Zoo?
I joined the Zoo in 1990. I moved to Fort Worth from New York for the construction of the World of Primates exhibit, which opened in 1992. I found it exciting to work with apes in a totally new environment – for them and for me. It’s wonderful to watch animals form new troops. The bonding behavior is fascinating. They have to learn to trust each other and their new keepers.
When did your career with animals begin?
I’ve loved animals (especially primates) since I was a child, but my official career began in 1981 at the Bronx Zoo. When I was 7 years old, I remember watching a keeper play “surrogate mom” to three baby gorillas. I told my mother that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. At age 23, I was sitting in the same gorilla exhibit playing “surrogate mom” to two baby gorillas and heard a little girl’s voice from the crowd say “When I grow up – that’s what I want to do.” I realized at that point I was exactly where I always wanted to be.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
As an animal keeper, you never know what will happen during the course of a day because animals are not 100 percent predictable. I love that each day is different and usually has surprises in store! There always seems to be something new to learn about individual apes, even after spending 20-plus years with them.
Linda loves that no two days are the same at her job. She has cared for this male gorilla since he was just a baby.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
One of the most challenging aspects of my job is the task of becoming familiar with each animal’s temperament, but still being prepared to expect the unexpected. For example, when we are introducing animals to each other, I can predict how each animal will react to the other. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes the apes have their own agenda. Besides introductions, another challenging aspect is preparing for the birth of an infant. Of course the ultimate goal is that the mother successfully raises the baby on her own, but sometimes keepers need to help with raising the infant. Preparations for ape births may include training the mother to hold her baby up to the keepers and vets. This way, if for some reason the mother cannot nurse the infant, we may be able to bottle feed the infant without taking it away from its mother. This is done frequently with first-time moms.
What’s the most interesting thing about the animals you work with at the Fort Worth Zoo?
The fine balance of give-and-take that develops in keeper/animal relationships has always been interesting to me. Often, keepers become part of the “troop dynamics.” So, it is only after time and familiarity that trust and a natural bond develops between the keeper and animal. For example, I have been very fortunate over the years to witness the birth of a gorilla at the Bronx Zoo and the first bonobo birth at the Fort Worth Zoo. Lucy, the bonobo mother, came to the Fort Worth Zoo specifically to breed with Kevin, a longtime resident here at the Zoo. We watched Lucy’s every move as her due date approached. Luckily, staff noticed early signs of labor so we could keep her inside the night holding area for delivery. Lucy seemed very relaxed with her two older offspring present and because she was so calm, her keepers remained in the area during the entire delivery. She was an experienced mom and delivered baby Layla within two hours. Lucy appeared quite content while she cleaned off her new infant and snacked on the hand-fed grapes we were giving her. She was certainly making the most of being the center of attention!
Linda was there for the birth of Layla (pictured above with mother Lucy), the first bonobo ever born at the Fort Worth Zoo.
What advice do you have for students who may pursue a job like yours?
Many people say they love animals, but in reality keepers must love taking care of animals. This is quite different than just loving them, and involves hard work, and not all play. If you choose a career working with animals, time and dedication are the name of the game. Some of my happiest and saddest memories come from sharing my life with apes in zoos.
What is a “typical” day like for you?
My day usually begins at 8 a.m. as I check on the animals, prepare their diets, set up exhibits and shift the animals from their indoor habitat to outdoors. After 10 a.m., I clean the indoor areas until noon. Then it’s out to feed lunches to the apes and take one for myself! After lunch we often have enrichment time (challenging activities or treats that encourage the animals’ natural behaviors). Some enrichment activities include training the apes to do different behaviors, such as presenting body parts for examination. This makes it easier for the Zoo’s medical staff to give them injections or examine wounds. My day usually ends with preparing the animals to go indoors at night. After bringing them inside for dinner, I clean the exhibit areas for the next day.
Linda spends her days caring for all the Zoo's primates.
What is the most fascinating animal in your care?
I specialize in primates, and they are all fascinating! They are intelligent animals, so I enjoy watching them try to figure out how to use a new enrichment device.
Linda and her staff often provide the Zoo's primates with enrichment items, such as these wreaths, to allow them to explore their natural behaviors.
What is your favorite amazing fact about apes?
One of the most amazing things about apes is the way they communicate with each other using body language and facial expressions, just as humans do. I can read them fairly well – but they seem to read me even better.