Dedication, Motivation Earn 'Diver Dan' Minnesota Zoo's Keeper of the Year Award
Minnesota Zoo aquarist Dan Peterson talks shark bites and sea dragons, and what winning this award means to him.
Daily swims in a coral reef and interacting with sea turtles sounds like the kind of vacation activities that would ward off the stuck-in-the-office blues that are all too common for some. But imagine if those activities actually were included in your job.
For Dan Peterson, they are, and they’re things he does extremely well. Peterson, or “Diver Dan” as he’s fondly known, recently was named the Minnesota Zoo’s 2010 Zookeeper of the Year.
Peterson was one of the first zookeepers hired by Allan Maguire, the supervisor of aquarium and life support at the zoo.
"He's very good to work with,” Maguire said. “He's very motivated. He has a lot of good ideas."
Peterson grew up in southern California, and the four-mile proximity to the beach fed his interest in all things aquatic, he said. Killer whales and sharks captured and held his interest all the way through college, and ultimately landed him at the Minnesota Zoo.
Peterson’s main responsibilities are taking care of the sea dragons, sea horses and tide pool, he said. He also takes the lead role with the sharks and coral reefs.
His daily rounds include checking the tanks, making sure life support is running properly, feeding, occasionally changing the water and protecting cleaners from aggressive sharks.
But he said he most enjoys caring for the sea dragons.
“They are a really cool and different animal,” he said.
Sea dragons, for the unfamiliar, are the leafy-looking fish often mistaken for seaweed found on the Australian coastline—a coveted (and expensive) fish at many zoos.
"They're very weird-looking,” Peterson said. In fact, they’re the weirdest animal he said he’s every worked with. “Sometimes people that come by don't even realize that they're looking at a fish."
While Discovery Bay is the hotspot for most of the sea life at the zoo, in the Tropics Trail coral reef exhibit visitors can catch a dive show at 10:30 a.m. daily. At the right time during a dive show, viewers also might be able to catch a glimpse of Peterson warding off sharks.
Peterson said diving in the shark tank is still the most novel part of his job because he doesn’t do it as frequently as the cleaning dives in the coral reef.
"I've almost been bit a couple of times," Peterson said with a laugh. "But other than that it's been OK. You just have to be careful; during their breeding time they get a little more feisty…. I've got all my fingers, though, so I'm happy."
Peterson’s attitude is no doubt part of the reason he was awarded Zookeeper of the Year.
"I've been nominated a couple of times but never gotten it, and it's really nice because it's the people in the biological programs voting on it, so it's a pretty cool thing to get," Peterson said.
"He's always out and around doing his job, and other people see that,” Maguire said. “They know he's always dedicated to his job and does what needs to be done.”
The Zookeeper of the Year award was established in 1978 in honor of the first zoologist at the Minnesota Zoo, Ralph "Mike" Erkel. The recipients each year are nominated by their peers and chosen based on their professional zookeeping performance.
For those wondering what it would be like to have Peterson’s job, he said the diving part is “kind of like you’re on top of the ocean.”
“It's a job that not everyone else has,” he said. “Only a handful of us get to do this.”