Ask a Zookeeper: How Many Animals?


Happy ZOOsday, everyone! 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 on my blog every Tuesday, and you can ask your own question HERE!

Here is this week's question:

Q. How many animals do you have in a typical zoo, and how many people are needed to take care of a zoo this size? -Royce

Photo Courtesy of wwarby
A: Hi Royce! I wish there were a simple answer for this question, but there is so much variation between zoos that it's nearly impossible to make a generalization. In terms of staffing, it is also important to take into account what kind of animals each facility has. (Two elephants require way more trainers than 10 turtles, for instance.)

Off the top of my head, I know that the San Diego Zoo (a very big and impressive facility) has more than 4,000 animals, but the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has more than 32,500. Many of the Aquarium's animals are tiny invertebrates and fish, so the number doesn't tell you nearly as much as you would initially think.

Using specific examples from my background, I have independently cared for about 25 animals during one shift. Some of these animals were small and easy like baby quails, but some were big and high-maintenance like eagles.

I worked in another facility where 15-17 dolphins were taken care of by 6-9 trainers and interns, so staffing definitely depends on the specific animal species. It also depends on each zoo's vision and approach to behavioral enrichment and training. (The more staff we have on hand, the more time we can dedicate to the "fun stuff" like making enrichment for our animals and leading training sessions!)

Ask a Zookeeper: That Time I Was Nearly Crushed


Happy ZOOsday, everyone! 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 on my blog every Tuesday, and you can ask your own question HERE!

Here is this week's question:

Q. In your time with animals, has there ever been an instance where you really felt your life was in danger? What happened and how did you get out of that situation? -luke

Photo Courtesy of Meneer Zjeroen
A. Only once. And ironically, it was with a camel. (I have chuckled over this countless times, because camels don't carry the street cred bears and big cats do. If you tell someone you almost got killed by a lion, you become a superstar. If you tell someone you almost got killed by a camel, they just shake their heads and laugh at you.)

That being said, this situation definitely wasn't a laughing matter at the time. This particular camel Knobby was about 1,400 pounds and more than six and a half feet tall, and he had the temperament, strength and temper of a MASSIVE unbroken stallion.

I had been working with him for a few months, and we had made amazing progress together. I still knew he was dangerous, but I guess I started to be lulled by our familiarity. I began to think he viewed me as his "buddy," and I stopped paying as close attention to our safety protocols.

I was working the late shift at the time. One evening, I was running really behind schedule, and I didn't make it to his enclosure until the zoo was closed and almost all the other keepers had left for the day. Even though I knew it was best practice to make sure other keepers were around in case I needed help, I decided to enter his enclosure and do some solo cleaning anyway.

There was a faulty latch on one of the gates, and the fence sometimes got stuck closed. I should have left it completely open, but I didn't. Instead, I walked right in and closed the gate behind me. I started raking, but it became clear very quickly that Knobby was in a rare mood. Instead of avoiding me like he usually did, he began chasing me around the enclosure. I used my rake to try to block him, but he began huffing and kicking and trying to bite and push me.

I tried to make a run for that faulty gate, but of course, it was stuck. I didn't have enough time to fiddle with it, so I ended up hiding behind a swing gate with my back pressed against the barn wall. Knobby stamped and pressed against the other side of the gate for several minutes, and it literally occurred to me that he may crush me between the gate and the wall.

Thankfully, he got distracted by something after ten minutes or so, and I was able to make a run for it. When I finally escaped, I immediately collapsed to the ground outside his enclosure and burst into tears.

It's difficult to describe the emotions I felt at that moment. Relief, for sure, but I also felt betrayed--like Knobby should have known better. He was supposed to LIKE me; how could he consider hurting me?

This is when I realized I had begun treating Knobby like a pet. This is the most critical mistake you can ever make as a zookeeper, because this is when the majority of accidents happen.

Once I came to terms with this realization, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started my evening training session with him (outside the bars). We went on to have many years of wonderful interactions, and I eventually taught him to sit on command, roll on his side, present his feet for inspection, wear a halter and let me to sit on his back.

But one thing I NEVER did again was take his size and strength for granted. He became my very favorite animal at the zoo, but I never entered his enclosure again without fully formulating an escape plan first.

Ask a Zookeeper: Wolves vs. Dogs


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 on my blog every Tuesday, and you can ask your very own question HERE!

Here is this week's question:

Q. Why are wolves so vicious while dogs are so docile? Aren't they pretty closely related? -circle gets the square


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A. Hi circle! The answer lies in the domestication process that transformed gray wolves into dogs. This process began between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, when early man began interacting with and taming wild wolves. Not all wolves were suited for this, so only the most "sociable" and "approachable" animals were tamed. These wolves bred with other "man-friendly" wolves, and their offspring grew up even more comfortable around man.

As each generation passed, the fear of man gradually left these wolves. And as each generation passed, the wolves' anatomy and physiology began changing. Humans who wanted strong animals to pull their sleds selectively bred their strongest animals together. Humans who wanted fast animals to help them hunt selectively bred their fastest animals together. Eventually, the wolves had changed so much that they weren't even really wolves anymore. That's when they first became dogs. (And that's why there's so much variation between breeds today!)

To answer your question, I would argue that wolves aren't actually "vicious" creatures; they are just wild animals that are guided by instinct and strength and prowess. Their natural fear of man is what makes them appear vicious to us.

Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred and raised among humans for so long that they view our relationship with them as natural. Their instinct to fear us has been absent for many thousands of years, so they are born with a clean slate against us. It is up to us to ensure we live up to their trust.

Ask a Zookeeper: Exotic Animals as Pets


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 on my blog every Tuesday, and you can ask your very own question HERE!

Here is this week's question:

Q. Are there any animals not commonly kept as pets that you think should be? -slowgrind

Photo Courtesy of bagsgroove
A. Goats! My friends laugh at my love for them, but what's not to like? They're cute, they're relatively docile and they mow your lawn for you! Pigs also make great pets, but they grow bigger than you'd think, so it's important to make sure you have lots of space for them.

In general, I actually recommend NOT owning exotic pets, because there are lots of behind-the-scenes issues with the pet trade. While some exotic animals are raised for this purpose, many more are stolen from their native habitat and smuggled overseas for sale. Infants are often separated from their mothers, and many die during transit.

Wild animals are also much more unpredictable (and sometimes dangerous) than their domestic counterparts, so owners often struggle to take care of them. They usually don't get the nutrition they need, and their "newness" wears off quickly.

Many times, owners eventually decide to "set them free," and this almost always has fatal consequences for the animal. When it doesn't, it disrupts the natural balance of the native ecosystem. (A great example of this is the massive reticulated pythons that are currently running amok in the Everglades--even though they are native to Southeast Asia.)

That being said, I definitely think farm animals should get more props for being awesome. If you happen to own a nice piece of land and can afford to support them, I would highly recommend them!

Ask a Zookeer: Amazing Animal Reunions



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. It’s as though [they] took the classic 'What do you do?' cocktail party question and turned it into a website…minus the awkward small-talk."

I have been having a great time hosting my Zookeeper Q&A so far, and I have decided to reprint one of my favorite Jobstr questions on my blog every Tuesday. (Do you have your very own "Ask a Zookeeper" question for me? Ask it HERE!)

Here is this week's question:

Q: Have you ever had a reunion moment like this one where an animal you hadn't seen in a long time remembered you? -becky


A: Oh my gosh, isn't that story the sweetest thing you have ever seen?? While I have never experienced anything nearly that dramatic, I did have a great moment a few years back when I returned to a marine park in Florida.

While I worked as the Education Director there, I really bonded with four rough-toothed dolphins. Two were very young and didn't remember me at all two years later, but the third seemed to show a flicker of recognition when she saw me. The fourth (my VERY favorite) immediately rushed over and put his chin in my lap. I was so overwhelmed and moved and thankful that I literally cried on the spot.

(By the way, leaving facilities has been the HARDEST thing I ever have to do in this line of work. Although the direction of your life changes and you know moving is what you need to do, you still feel like your guts get ripped out every time you have to say goodbye. I tear up just thinking about it.)