Q&A: Zookeeper Lee Harper

The Palo Alto Junior Zoo’s animal care specialist and ambassador shares the wildest thing she’s ever done, why she loves a certain tortoise and what goes on after all the visitors go home.

What’s your favorite zoo animal name?
Aigon, the one-eyed raccoon, pronounced “eye-gone.”

So what really goes on after-hours? Any animal hijinks?
One early morning, I found all six flamingos going round
and round the hand-washing station, keeping the automatic sprayers activated. Those rascals even figured out how to
open the elevator.

What traits make for a good zookeeper?
A good zookeeper needs to enjoy interacting with humans as much as animals. We are there to share the love for these animals and to create generations of humans who will care to protect them in their natural world.

Who has your vote for cutest animal couple at the zoo?
Without question, Violet and Fern, the African spoonbills. Those two girls are like ladies you would like to sit down and have tea with.

What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve had to do for your job?
Early in my career at the zoo, I was by myself and had to give medication, by injection, to our especially large snake. You have to just straighten your spine and do what needs to be done.

Where are your favorite go-to spots on the Peninsula?
True Food Kitchen at Stanford Shopping Center and The Market at Edgewood. We get our produce for the animals there and they have wonderful food to enrich the zookeepers.

What do you consider a must-do on your bucket list?
I’m living the dream.

What’s new at the zoo these days?
We’ve been incubating ibis and hand-raising them. It’s been thrilling to raise the babies from eggs and then be involved in training them.

How do you recharge your batteries at the end of the day?
A long drive home, along the coast. I live south of Half Moon Bay, near San Gregorio. Then diving into a pile of purring felines when I arrive home.

We understand you have a soft spot for Edward, the African spurred tortoise?
Oh Edward! I love him too much! There’s a communication I feel with him that runs so deep in my heart.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
Pulling up a huge alligator from the bottom of a deep pool while doing a life-check in the middle of winter.

What’s something people are always surprised to learn about you?
That I used to fly on a wire, like Peter Pan, for a living. I was employed doing character work in film, commercials and live events for the majority of my life.

Do you have a personal motto?
Leap and the net will appear.