AFSME Local 602 - MSU Moorhead

You See The Results of Their Work, But Rarely See Them

Local 1842’s Perry Thompson at a Como Zoo maintenance garage.

When the zoo closes, visitors aren’t the only ones who go home. So do the keepers. That leaves animals and property in the care of security personnel and AFSCME maintenance crews.

“Maintenance people, they’re our backbone,” says Como zookeeper Bree Dingmann. “We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

One critical duty these crews have is making sure water and air temperatures stay at levels that keep animals safe.

The Minnesota Zoo, for example, heats three dozen buildings (and the exhibits they contain) with a high-pressure hot-water system. If pipes leak or boilers act up, “people will get called in the middle of the night to deal with it,” says Local 1929’s Ernie Opheim. “It does not take long for the heat to go out of the system, especially in winter. And that can create some real problems for the animals and birds.”

Opheim has worked at the zoo since 1993 as an engineer and boiler operator. These days, his job still requires maintaining pumps and replacing belts by hand. But electronic fire systems and the direct digital controls of the zoo’s zone energy systems mean the job is a lot more high-tech than it used to be.

Opheim’s days include the freedom of driving the grounds to visually inspect equipment and infrastructure. But his shifts can also require staying put for hours in front of a computer monitor or baby-sitting a boiler overnight.

At Como Zoo, Local 1842’s Perry Thompson knows pre-dawn hours well. He gets up with the birds, literally. Thompson, a maintenance worker since 1986, reports to work at 5 a.m. His job: Get the grounds ready – picking up trash, mopping floors, and cleaning the glass of exhibits so they’re ready for another day’s worth of kids’ handprints.

Local 1929’s Matt Keating is another guy visitors don’t see. In his 25 years at the Minnesota Zoo, he’s done everything from build exhibits to plant flowers. Nowadays, he keeps doors, locks and all 300 fire extinguishers up to code. But mostly he works the storeroom – a warehouse where crews handle all shipments, and stock and deliver all the supplies other zoo workers need.

“We’ve got just about anything you’d find in a hardware store,” he says. He’s also got a few supplies you won’t find at Ace – including 120 cases of frozen meats for the zoo’s tigers.

Betcha didn’t know

  • Como is the last completely free zoo in the country – no admission fee, no parking fee. That definitely makes Como affordable for families.The policy also makes it a destination for regulars who visit almost every day. That includes a group of what zookeeper Peter Lee calls vulnerable adults.“This is a safe place for them,” Lee says. “In fact, there’s one guy that really likes the primates. He’s the rule keeper – ‘It says don’t go on the rail.’ ‘It says don’t feed them.’ ‘I’m sorry, no smoking.’ And he answers the questions about their names and ages. It’s great. We should put him on the payroll.” 

Adapted from the July/August 2009 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine

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