Ask a Zookeeper: When Animals Attack


As many of you know, I am the Zookeeper-in-Residence on Jobstr.com--a website where "you can ask people anything about their jobs and answer questions about yours." I reprint one of my favorite "Ask a Zookeeper" questions every Tuesday, and you can ask your very own question HERE!

Here is this week's question:

Q: Have you witnessed any {grisly} animal attacks on humans (or on one another) during your time in zoos? Any one in particular stand out as the worst? -grizzly adamz

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A. Hi Griz! Believe it or not, I actually haven't seen any grisly attacks--just occasional bites or scrapes or bruises. There are a lot less attacks than you might think, and this is partially due to the safety protocols zoos and aquariums put into place before an animal and its keeper even meet.

Animals are basically separated into "fight" animals or "flight" animals. The "fight animals" (bears, most big cats, etc.) are hard-wired to stand their ground when threatened, while the "flight animals" (most hoofstock, wolves, raptors, etc.) have evolved to flee.

In most zoos, keepers use "protected contact" while dealing with fight animals--and even some flight animals. This means all training must be done through some kind of barrier--like a fence or bars. This prevents most dangerous incidents from occurring.

Injuries can occur even when working with flight animals, of course, so keepers must always be alert, and we must learn to "read" our animals before training can occur. If an animal seems "off" for some reason, we must trust our gut and put our personal safety first--even if it means temporarily missing a training session. (In the event we do get injured, 95% of the time it's because of an error on OUR part--not paying attention, not reading our animals correctly, being distracted, etc.)

Here are my personal claims to fame: I have been bitten by a raccoon (twice!), bitten by a bottlenose dolphin, clawed by a great horned owl, cornered by a Bactrian camel and stabbed in the arm by a mountain goat. (Every time, the injury was my fault!)