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Zookeeper Sonia Hojka hand-feeds Charles, 39, at the Toronto Zoo's African Pavillion on July 11, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Zookeeper Sonia Hojka hand-feeds Charles, 39, at the Toronto Zoo's African Pavillion on July 11, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)


A real zookeeper v. the movie 'Zookeeper' Add to ...

This summer, The Globe's Dave McGinn takes the pros to the movies - people whose real lives are flickering on the big screen - to see where summer silliness and reality intersect. The series begins with a discussion of Zookeeper, a comedy starring Kevin James ( The Dilemma, Hitch) as a lovelorn zookeeper who gets advice from his animals.

Animals always talk to zookeepers, right? No, says Sonia Hojka, a 33-year-old who's been a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo forsevenyears - but she says the movie does get a lot right about her job.

As a zookeeper, what were your first impressions of the movie?

I was actually quite impressed. There were some unrealistic things, definitely. But it was a good comedy. It's all in fun. Animals don't actually talk to us.

Sure they don't. When you're talking to the animals, what kind of dating advice do they give you?

They communicate with us, but there's no speaking. You can understand their body language and facial expressions, but there's no speaking.

What did the movie get right about being a zookeeper?

I really enjoyed how Kevin James was into enriching the animals, like giving them things to do, not just giving them their food in a bowl. Training and enrichment is now a really, really important job now in zookeeping.

What kind of stuff would that involve?

Basically, putting an animal's food in something like a ball with holes drilled in it rather than just scattering it. They have to manipulate the ball. It just stimulates them more. It makes them forage, and that's really, really important. It makes them more active. In the movie, James gets a tire for the gorilla, he gets the gorilla a feeder ball. That's why he's a really great keeper, because he does try to do the best for the animals.

Like taking them to T.G.I. Fridays. That is one extra-special zookeeper. Have you ever wanted to sneak an animal out of the zoo?

Truthfully, I've got a couple of favourites, although obviously I would never take anybody. There was a serval, an African wildcat, that I used to work with. She's definitely one of my all-time favourite animals.

How do zoo animals get their names?

A lot of the time, the keepers will name them. But at the Toronto Zoo we also do a lot of contests for some of the bigger-profile animals. A couple of years ago there was a contest where the public could submit names for a baby gorilla and then people could voteonline.

Being a zookeeper seems to involve doing a lot of driving in a really cool golf cart-type vehicle. Is that true for you?

Not for me. There are a few areas that do have vehicles because they are so large. I work in the Africa pavilion, and although it's a big pavilion, it's all contained, so we don't use a vehicle.

Have any of the big cats in the Africa pavilion ever eaten a can of Red Bull?

No, but we've had one that's eaten a part of a tire and had to have it surgically removed.

People in the movie are always trying to push the zookeeper into another line of work. Do your friends and family cajole you to become a salesperson or take some other gig?

Sometimes you find that. Because they know that I love coming to work every day they don't. But when I first started out I had people tell me, "Why don't you pick something that pays better or is more respected." It's actually very difficult to get in as a zookeeper nowadays. It's a highly sought-after profession. That's one part I didn't really enjoy in the movie, is that they kept trying to push him to be something else. But he stayed true.

What makes a great zookeeper?

You have to have great observation skills. Animals - especially the prey animals that would be hunted in the wild by other animals - will maskillness because that's a sign of weakness. You need to build a relationship with the animals, too. And you do need to have good people skills. We do a lot of behind-the-scenes tours and daily talks as well, so you do have to have that personal touch as well.

How do you build a relationship with animals?

Just spending time with them, working with them as much as you can. Then they get to know you. If you're going to be doing any training with them that builds the relationship as well because you're giving them treats when they do something correctly, and what animal doesn't love food?

What do you make of the idea of learning about courtship from animal mating behaviour?

I think it's funny. Our relationships are much different. Mating is all animals do. There are some that will pair bond for life. It's a little far-fetched that they were giving him advice, but it was still cute.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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