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New Certification Program at the ABQ BioPark Will Offer Career Advancement, Ensure Continued Excellence in Animal Care

Zookeepers and aquarists can now opt into taking a curriculum of professional development courses.

August 3, 2022 - The ABQ BioPark is proud to announce a new certification program that will allow animal care staff to advance in their careers through ongoing training and development opportunities while also improving the lives of the animals entrusted to our care.

The ABQ BioPark Animal Care Excellence Program (ACE) aims to develop and improve employees’ knowledge and skills in all areas of animal care. Employees who opt into the program will follow a curriculum of online and in-person trainings about a range of topics including animal wellness, nutrition, animal training and enrichment.

Previously, zookeepers and aquarists only had two job levels: I and II. This limited opportunities for long-term career advancement. This program expands this to levels III and IV, with each level receiving increased responsibilities and higher pay. Through the program, staff can move from one level to the next without the need to apply for an open position. 

ABQ BioPark Associate Director Bob Lee said ACE will make the BioPark, “better for employees and animals,” by improving employee retention, offering professional development, and enhancing animal care. “The BioPark has been a leader in animal welfare and conservation for decades, and this will help us continue on that path,” Lee said.

“Zookeepers and aquarists provide excellent daily care to the ABQ BioPark’s living collection,” said Brandon Gibson, deputy director of the Department of Arts and Culture. “Every day, the BioPark’s dedicated staff provide exceptional care including feeding, cleaning of habitats and behind-the-scenes holding areas, animal enrichment, and behavioral training. The ABQ BioPark ACE Program will provide a clear path for zookeepers and aquarists to further develop their knowledge and skills in all areas of animal care and wellness.” 

The certification program is utilizing a number of resources including the city’s Employee Learning Center and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Academy’s online courses. Insider knowledge from staff and the New Mexico BioPark Society’s representatives from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will also offer in-house training and information.

ABQ BioPark staff, with the encouragement and advisement of Gibson, have been working to make the certification program happen for several years. A work group of three keepers, an aquarist, a supervisor and a curator worked to create the program steps and syllabus under the approval of the Local 624 union. Union President Casey Padilla worked with the group to help make the program design a success.

“I’m very proud of this program because it’s a way to reward our great animal care staff for all the hard work they do every day,” said Valarie Thietten, senior carnivore keeper and member of the ACE Program work group. “We want everyone to be the best they can be. With this program, we are giving everyone the opportunity to be just that. It is a much needed program and long overdue. This is a huge morale booster.”

This kind of employee certification program is unique in Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited institutions and will likely serve as a model for other AZA facilities in the future. The program was approved by Mayor Tim Keller and City Council, who moved to allocate an additional $328,000 to the BioPark for the 2023 fiscal year in support of ACE.

In addition to the ACE Program, the ABQ BioPark has invested in strategic planning, leadership development, master planning committee, conservation committee and AZA training opportunities for zookeeper and aquarist union staff members.

While there are approximately 2,800 licensed animal exhibitors in the United States, fewer than 10 percent meet the rigorous standards required for AZA accreditation. The ABQ BioPark has been continuously accredited for more than 30 years, demonstrating the BioPark’s ongoing leadership in ongoing animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, guest experience, education and safety.