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01-21 Staff Spotlight: Julie McKinney

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Staff Spotlight: Julie McKinney

To say that I have wanted to work with animals since I was little is far from an exaggeration. I knew ever since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a zookeeper. Knowing this, my mom found an explorer program that I could be part of and off to the Pittsburgh Zoo we went. At the zoo, I had the opportunity to talk with the reptile keeper who said, “I’d rather work with someone who has wrestled an alligator then read about them in a book.” He suggested that I attend Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) Zoo Teaching Program. In 5th grade, I packed my bags and waited!  In 2002, after graduation, I headed to Gainesville, Florida to attend SFCC. They offered a small 10-acre AZA zoo with 70 different species including some of my favorites, red ruffed lemurs, Matschie’s tree-kangaroo, Asian small-clawed otters, collared peccary, white handed gibbons, and caracals. They also gave me the opportunity to conquer my fears of snakes, which I did not! I worked five semesters handling venomous and non-venomous snakes, and lizards. The only ones I enjoyed at the end had legs! More importantly, I learned some of the golden rules for working in the zoo field, which helped me in so many ways in the job I have now. While at school, I volunteered at a large cat sanctuary and the Jacksonville Zoo. I graduated in 2004.

Working with a wide variety of species eventually led Julie to the Duke Lemur Center and lemurs.

I moved back home to Pennsylvania to get married to my high school sweetheart. I worked at a small animal veterinarian practice as a veterinary technician, while applying to zoos all over the country to get my foot in the door. I so enjoyed my time as a vet tech, and I learned things that had previously been out of my comfort zone. I was able to assist in surgeries, draw blood, give fluids and so much more. I had no idea how useful the medical knowledge that I gained there would be to me in this job as well.

Passing out food to a group of coquerel's sifaka

Passing out breakfast to a group of Coquerel’s sifaka in one of the DLC’s forest enclosures.

I never thought primates were my passion, I always felt more like a carnivore or hoof stock keeper. Desperate to get into the field, I had the opportunity to apply here at Duke in 2006. During the interview, I met Merlin, an aye-aye, and Titus, a crowned sifaka who came hopping down the path in one of the natural habitats. I was hooked on lemurs! Throughout the years, I had amazing opportunities to work with amazing people and animals. I became a lead technician in 2011, and I was selected to be the aye-aye vice chair in 2014. I have traveled all over the world training zookeepers on aye-aye behavior, breeding, and handling while learning from them as well.

Julie McKinney holding Eustace during a routine vet examination

Julie holds juvenile Coquerel’s sifaka Eustace during a routine vet visit (2017).

In 2020, my position switched to a split between husbandry and research. Currently, I work 3 days per week in husbandry and 2 days with the research department. Husbandry days are filled with enrichment, training, feeding, and cleaning. Research days are made up of collecting different samples from the animals or training an animal for an upcoming research project. The most exciting part of being a team member at the DLC is that I am constantly learning but right know the research side of it is such a different component that I feel like I am back in school absorbing so much. I appreciate the research we do here at the DLC because it shows us the value each and every one of the lemurs have here and what we can learn from them to help us in the future for both them and us.