Janel Kempf has been helping kids learn about the wonders of wildlife for nearly 25 years.

Nothing quite captivates a kid’s imagination more than when a zookeeper brings an animal to school, especially when it’s a massive, mottled snake.

This is the job of Teamster Janel Kempf, a learning coordinator at Woodland Park Zoo who has been bringing animal ambassadors into the classroom for nearly 25 years.

“I help bring science to life in ways that kids will remember,” Janel says.

One of her favorite animals to show the kids is a ball python named Obi, a snake so gentle Janel likens him to a golden retriever in a python suit.

“Obi has helped a lot of kids overcome their fear of snakes and recognize snakes as sensitive creatures,” she explains.

Teaming up together, Janel and Obi foster an empathetic connection between children and wildlife. It is work of indispensable value that is underappreciated by the Woodland Park Zoo Society, the entity that took over management of the Zoo from the City of Seattle a little over 20 years ago.

Janel says the impact of the change has been detrimental to workers and animals alike. “They’ve been gradually keeping down our wage increases for 20 years to the point that there’s a huge gulf between what we get paid and what people in equivalent positions at the City get paid.”

Many keepers and other union members can't afford to work at the Zoo or have to make brutally long commutes into the city. Low wages have led to unsustainably high turnover, which harms animals that rely on steady relationships with their keepers.

“It’s reached the point where people are not able to turn on the heat in the winter because they’re afraid they can’t buy groceries,” Janel says.

With the Zoo unwilling to put meaningful economic proposals on the table in negotiations, Janel and her co-workers brought their plea for a living wage to City officials on Wednesday.

Workers at the Woodland Park Zoo are demanding a life of dignity.

The group of workers - all members of the Joint Craft Council of Unions - presented councilmembers and the mayor with a petition bearing over 200 signatures with a simple, but powerful message: “We deserve a life of dignity.”

One by one, workers lined up during public comment to testify. They told heartfelt stories of economic hardship and at the same time emphasized their love for their jobs and the animals.

Zookeeper Allison Cloud spoke of the physical challenges of the work, injuries she’s sustained, and the grief of losing animals she’s cared for. “This job requires our hearts, our bodies, and our minds. It should not steal our futures, too.”