Meet the Senior Wild Animal Keeper: Yvetta Pokorny of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo Ornithology Department

Yvetta Pokorny and Sun Visal (a WCS researcher from Cambodia), and a lesser adjunct stork. Photo by Julie Larsen-Maher, Copyright WCS.

Describe your job.
I would call it the job of a lifetime.

I have the privilege of taking care of many different species of birds. I oversee the Ostrich House and the Pheasant Aviary at the Bronx Zoo as well as the birds of prey, our flock of Chilean flamingos, and group of lesser adjutant storks.

Every day is different. The needs of the animals change with the seasons and weather. These conditions will dictate how I manage the birds and their exhibits.

In addition to my daily routine of feeding and cleaning, I work with the others in the department to observe and study animal behaviors to collect data that helps us create the best possible conditions for the birds. I closely monitor the birds and assess their health, condition, food consumption, and breeding needs. We design, maintain and adjust exhibits based on the needs of each animal. We clean pools and streams for wading birds and install high perching for birds of prey and storks.

I am also in close contact with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field rangers in Cambodia who are monitoring lesser adjutant and great adjutant storks in Tonle Sap Great Lake area. We exchange information that helps the both the researchers in the field as well as keepers who care for the birds in the Zoo.

During the summer months I like to work with young people, our interns, who are making choices about their careers. This is an opportunity to share my love for my work and my experiences that may help them to pursue carrier in field biology, animal behavior, conservation, or veterinary medicine. I am proud of many of the students that have come through the internship program at WCS.

My job is very rewarding. Whether it is figuring out what kind of nesting material a small ground dove will use to build a nest, to learning that the field guide I created for WCS rangers in Cambodia is helpful in determining ages of lesser adjutant storks in the wild.

How long have you been in the position?

I have been a wild animal keeper in the Bronx Zoo Ornithology Department for 17 years; the senior keeper for 12 years.
 
What in your background helped you get the job?

I majored in biology, mathematics, and history of art. I believe that the combination of all three subjects helps me understand animals and provide them with the best care and conditions that closely replicate those of their natural habitat.

I came to the U.S. 20 years ago. We escaped from Czechoslovakia, then under communist regime, where I worked as a veterinary technician for more than 13 years.

After living in the U.S. for about two years, I drove my bicycle (didn’t have money for car) along Fordham Road and literally smelled the bison at the Bronx Zoo. At that moment I knew that the Zoo was the place I wanted to be.

I have been here for more than 17 years, and I am still just as happy as I was in the very beginning. 

A lesser adjutant stork. Photo by Julie Larsen-Maher, Copyright WCS.

What’s your favorite thing about your job?
I enjoy every aspect of my work.

I am very proud to have the opportunity to contribute to Wildlife Conservation Society field conservation programs and that my work at the Bronx Zoo is helping to save species all over the world.

The best part of my day is in the morning and in the late afternoon when everything in the Zoo is quiet and calm. I like to walk through the Zoo to check on all birds under my care.

I like to work with new species. It challenges me to understand their needs so I can provide the best care for them by creating living conditions similar to what they would experience in the wild.

I enjoy learning from the animals about our connection to nature. We are all a part of the same ecosystem and are dependent on each other and healthy habitats in order to survive.

Describe a favorite memory/experience in your current position.

My knees start shaking every spring when we open the door for the birds that were in winter holding areas during the winter. I watch the birds take their first cautious steps outside, look around, then fly to the highest perch.

I feel butterflies in my stomach every time I see chicks leave the nest or spread their wings for the first time.

Do you have a favorite animal? Why is it your favorite?

I’d like to think that I don’t have a favorite, but I have been caring for a group of lesser adjutant storks for 15 years.

As I go through my daily routine I study their behavior. It is fascinating how this group functions socially. Sadly, this species of storks is on the decline in the wild. We realized that only a program aimed to protect their nesting sites and habitats can save them from extinction.

Lesser adjutants rarely breed in captivity. WCS’s Bronx Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution where a generation of lesser adjutant storks has been successfully born and raised outside of their native habitat. I traveled to Cambodia and was able to pass my knowledge of the species onto rangers in the field and support WCS conservation programs in South East Asia.

To date, we have raised 15 offspring. Five of which are the second generation born in captivity. The matriarch of the lesser adjutant stork group, “Fergie,” would be my favorite. She is a quiet leader … leading her group and sometimes ours as well.

Tim Lewthwaite

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