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: Panda Exchanges


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: How do zoos negotiate animal exchanges (like when you hear about the SD zoo getting 3 pandas from China for a season or something)? -padres123

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A: Hi Padres! Animal exchanges are done for a variety of reasons, including reproduction and genetic diversity. In the case of giant pandas, zoos often acquire them to inspire guests to care about issues like wildlife conservation. (They obviously appreciate the increase in zoo attendance as well. ;))

Nowadays, there are probably less than 1,000 pandas remaining in the wild. Only 110 or so live in zoos, and just 16 of these are housed outside China. The Chinese government regulates the export of pandas to zoos in other countries, and these exchanges can be incredibly complicated.

The crux of the exchange is monetary, of course, but many other factors may be at play. Sometimes, the zoos exchange other animals during the trade as well, and often the money must be used in a particular way--i.e., to support panda habitat restoration or research. Pandas can only be loaned for a certain amount of time, and very high standards of care must be met to ensure the panda is put into a thriving, dynamic environment.

Hope this is helpful!

Ask a Zookeeper: Surprisingly Ferocious Animals


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: "Are there any animals that SEEM cuddly and docile to zoo visitors, but are actually ferocious and around which you need to be careful?" -Dan79

A: Absolutely! My general saying is that any animal with a mouth is capable of biting. ;)

Many visitors believe a zoo's only dangerous animals are the carnivores, but many of the world's most unpredictable and powerful animals are actually herbivores. Even the cute and cuddly creatures are capable of packing a pretty powerful punch. That's why it's important for animal care professionals to never let our guards down. No matter how long we have been working with a particular animal, we must always remember it is a wild animal, not a pet. 

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
As a specific example, I used to work in a facility that displayed arctic foxes. They were the cutest things in the world--fluffy and white, with button eyes and little black noses--but their cuteness transformed the moment anyone got too close. If given the opportunity, they would have probably chewed my fingers off. :)

Ask a Zookeeper: Can ANY Animal be Trained?



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, a follow-up on last week's question about a particularly gifted dancing walrus. (See last week's post here!)

Q. Can ANY walrus be trained [to tango and play the saxophone], or is that one especially intelligent? How about other animals; can pretty much any species be trained to perform a routine? -coryschneider


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
A. Theoretically, any walrus could be trained like that. However--just like some people enjoy the spotlight while others shy away from it--it often depends on the individual animal.

First and foremost, keepers train their animals for practical "husbandry" or medical behaviors--like shifting in and out of pens so we can clean, presenting their paws and teeth so we can check for injuries, presenting their shoulders for injections, etc. Once our animals have those behaviors mastered, we begin to shift our focus.

If an animal seems to enjoy our training sessions, we often continue with other behaviors to keep the animal's environment dynamic and enriching. If the animal doesn't, we often leave them mostly to their own devices.

If an animal REALLY seems to respond to our training sessions, we sometimes make the decision to train that animal for a show or presentation. It certainly takes a special animal to thrive in a public venue like a stadium--just like it takes a special keeper to thrive in that environment as well.

As far as your species question, it depends. Animals with higher relative intelligence often respond more quickly than other animals, but that's not always the case. Generally speaking, it is also easier to train aggressive animals than it is to train shy animals, because aggressive animals are already hard-wired to approach us. It is fairly easy for us to redirect their energy once they do, but it is difficult to overcome the barrier of an animal that is hard-wired to run away from us. It takes a lot of initial training just to get them to feel comfortable being near us.

Ask a Zookeeper: That Dancing Walrus


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!)

To kick things off, I will start with one of my very first questions:

Q: Have you ever seen this clip? Can you explain just how they train an animal to do that? Obviously they give him treats, but how do you even begin to teach a walrus how to step forward and back to a beat? -coryschneider


A: I love this question, and thanks for the link, Cory. I actually hadn't seen that video before, and it is fabulous.

Complicated behaviors like the ones shown in this clip often take months--if not years--to perfect. What you are seeing is the result of many, many hours of hard work and dedication, both on the part of the trainer and on the part of the walrus.

In order for a trainer to teach an animal something that complicated, the behavior must be broken down into many tiny steps. In the case of the tango, the steps would be something like 1) right flipper forward, 2) left flipper forward, 3) right flipper forward again, 4) left flipper forward again, 5) right flipper back, 6) left flipper back, 7) bow to the crowd, etc.

When the trainer first begins training, he approaches each behavior individually. For example, if he wants to train "right flipper forward," he will reward the walrus with positive reinforcement (treats, rubs, etc.) every time he successfully moves his right flipper forward.

This is done much like the "hot/cold" game we played as kids. The moment the walrus moves his flipper forward--even if it's on accident--the trainer will blow a whistle to signal success and then will quickly give the walrus his reward. Eventually, the walrus will make the connection, and he will happily move his flipper forward whenever directed--usually through a verbal command or a hand signal.

Once the walrus has this behavior mastered, the trainer will move on to the next command: "left flipper forward." Eventually, the trainer will string these two behaviors together, and the walrus will realize he only gets his reward when he completes both behaviors in sequence.

The trainer will teach this over and over and over until the walrus can perform this entire sequence on command. Once this is perfected, the walrus and his trainer can perform the illusion of a spontaneous musical number to the beat of a song, even though the walrus isn't actually paying attention to the song at all. He is watching his trainer, and he is waiting for the subtle commands that will undoubtedly lead to his reward at the end of the number. (Notice the attention and that juicy fish he got right before they walked off-stage!)