Photos by Nicole Bissey

When the Kansas City Zoo opened to the public in 1909, the grounds played host to four lions, three monkeys, a wolf, a fox, a coyote, a badger, a lynx, and an eagle. Today the zoo is home to 1,700 animals from over 200 species.

The zoo offers a chance for Missourians and visitors from all over to see exotic and endangered species that many people won’t have a chance to see in the wild, such as elephants and penguins. Experiences here can have an impact on how we think about our relationship to nature, and zoos like Kansas City’s also play a role in environmental preservation and conservation.

So what does it take to care for such a vast menagerie? We assigned photographer Nicole Bissey to shadow some of the zoo’s keepers for a day, capturing a firsthand glimpse at the daily life of a zookeeper.

8:00–9:30 AM
African Elephants

The day starts at 8 AM with the elephants. Zookeeper Courtney Cook and her team prepare food for the elephants, including Lady, the oldest African elephant in North America. Each elephant has a specific diet that is catered to the animal’s health. Lady, being older, requires more greens than some of her younger companions. The elephants also take medication. Just the same as we may be prescribed medicine for ailments like arthritis and hypertension as we get older, so, too, are the elephants at the zoo.

African elephants are the largest land mammals on earth, and seven of them live at the Kansas City Zoo. Their names are Lea, Lois, Lady, Tattoo, Megan, Zoe, and Tamani. The zoo has also begun a research initiative to review the reproductive health of older African elephants held in captivity.

Caring for the elephant’s hooves is a big part of the daily routine and is among the top concerns of the zookeepers who look after them. The elephants are trained to respond to certain signals. As the zookeeper puts her left arm out, Lady places her hoof on the bar for cleaning and inspection by the staff.

9:30–11:30 AM
Penguins & Stingrays 

After the elephants, it’s time to pay a visit to the penguins. The species of penguins at the Kansas City Zoo include king penguins and gentoo penguins, the second and third largest species of penguins respectively, as well as the Humboldt penguin, which, being native to South America, doesn’t mind the hot Missouri summers. The zoo also has macaroni penguins. Because the other penguins are native to chilly Antarctica, they are kept in a cooler, indoor pool.

Zookeepers Andrea O’Daniels, Courtney Cook, and Kelly Schouten feed the penguins and clean their enclosures. The penguins are fed a variety of fish twice daily, and each one may eat as much as it likes. As the penguins dine, Kelly keeps a careful record of how many fish each one consumes, and this information is monitored over time. Each penguin also gets a med-fish, which is stuffed with a multivitamin and any special medications that the penguin may need.

The Humboldt penguins in particular has seen a population decline in recent years. In 2016, zoo staff members traveled to Peru to the penguins’ breeding grounds to participate in a census and to begin building partnerships for future conservation opportunities.

1:00–3:00 PM
Donkeys & Black Rhinoceros

In the afternoon, Andy Callum and other keepers give the rhinos a mud bath in addition to cleaning and feeding. Missouri winters are too cold for the black rhinos to live comfortably outdoors, but in their natural environment, they are accustomed to rolling in the dirt not only to protect their skin from pests, but also because they enjoy the feeling—thus, the mud bath. Although there aren’t many bugs to bother the rhinos in the colder months, they still enjoy having mud applied to their skin. During normal times, the Kansas City Zoo also offers animal encounter programs, which allow the public to book an up-close encounter with specific animals at the zoo, such as a rhino. Animal encounters are currently suspended due to COVID-19.

The black rhino is among the most endangered species found at the Kansas City Zoo. Only five thousand of them still roam the wilds of their native Africa, but that number has doubled in recent years thanks to renewed conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Although we often think of zoos as being the place to see exotic fauna from faraway lands, the Kansas City Zoo also has animals Missourians will find familiar, such as donkeys named Applejack and Friday, seen here with Lindsay Class and Maggie Sperkowski. The donkeys, although not as unusual as some of the other species at the zoo, have been domesticated by humans for thousands of years as pack animals and herd protectors.

Amphibians & Reptiles 

In the afternoon, the amphibians and reptiles get a visit. Lindsay Class sprays down the terrarium housing the Panamanian golden frogs, which helps keep their enclosure clean and also makes them more comfortable, simulating the humid environment of their native tropics. Panamanian golden frogs are the most dangerous frog in existence, due to the toxin they produce and secrete through the skin. In captivity, with no predators to ward off, the frogs are fed a diet that stops them from producing the powerful toxin, making them safe for the zookeepers to handle.

The Kansas City Zoo is home to a wide array of amphibians and reptiles, including blue dart poison frogs like the ones seen at left, known for the powerful toxin they produce to protect themselves from predators. The toxin from these colorful frogs, native to the Amazon Rainforest, was once used to tip hunting arrows. The zoo also houses a variety of snakes, including the carpet python, California kingsnake, and Amazon tree boa.


The tropics exhibit is the last stop on our tour, and it is home to perhaps the slowest-moving animal at the zoo, Arnie, who is a Linne’s two-toed sloth. A sloth such as Arnie can take weeks to digest food, which helps lend itself to a slow-paced lifestyle in the wild. Green-winged macaws such as Snickerdoodle and Butters also live here. Green-winged macaws generally mate for life and can take ninety days to raise their fledglings. The macaws and the sloth are native to South America.