Discovering Life Sciences Through Apprenticeship

Zoo Horticulture Through New Eyes


The Indianapolis Zoo’s Animal and Horticulture Collections staffs were fortunate to have a little extra help this summer due to the Life Sciences Keeper Apprentice Program, which is brand new this year. Two people were chosen from those that applied to spend 12 weeks shadowing, learning from and working with staff members, spending two weeks in each of six different areas.

Maria and Olivia joined the Horticulture Department toward the end of their apprenticeships. They both have career goals of animal care and they had no real plant or gardening experience — they were definitely gardening “newbies.” They have plenty of experience now as we exposed them to as many facets of our job as we could! When I asked them what they thought of their time with us, they talked about learning so much as they planted, pruned, mulched, deadheaded, weeded and even string trimmed (“a little intimidating”) their way through the grounds of the Zoo and White River Gardens.

The women both commented that they had no idea how much the Horticulture Department does! They see we gardeners have hard, labor-intensive jobs, which we do in all kinds of weather and we are always busy with our many projects. Besides learning plant care basics, Olivia and Maria became acquainted with in-ground irrigation work (“so complex”), tree removal, bee keeping (both loved getting up close and personal with our hives in the Gardens), and the importance of milkweed plants in the life cycle of monarch butterflies.

The vital connection between horticulture and animal care in a zoo became clear for Olivia and Maria when they learned about browse, which is the veterinary-approved, fresh plant material the Horticulture staff provides for the animals, both as part of their diets and to enrich their lives. Cutting and delivering browse goes on every day. The need is so great that we go offsite to collect enough for all our animals, and the apprentices really enjoyed going on such a trip to help cut trees for the elephants.

So the Horticulture leg of the apprentice program was a hit. Maria appreciated us giving her projects to do and leaving her to do them after teaching her how; Olivia wants to learn more about zoo animal browse and plans to surprise her grandmother with her new knowledge of hosta care. I asked if they thought they would now do some gardening on their own someday. They both said yes. Learning all they did and seeing produce growing in the spots like the White River Garden’s City Garden has given them just enough know-how to feel confident they, too, can garden. And their having a new appreciation for plants and what we do in the Horticulture Department makes their time with us a win-win for all!

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