Live Q&A with a Zookeeper!!

Photo Courtesy of Me
As many of you know, I used to host a weekly blog column I called "Wildlife Wednesdays: Ask a Zookeeper." Utilizing my knowledge as a zookeeper, animal trainer and environmental educator, I answered your animal-related questions--many of which came from your story ideas and manuscripts.

(Credit for the idea actually belongs to Lydia Kang, who is a medical doctor as well as a young adult author. Her "Medical Monday" posts offer incredible insight into disorders, injuries and such. Many writers I know have made her their go-to doctor whenever they have story-related questions--i.e., "How long could a person be knocked unconscious without suffering brain damage?" "How long does it take for a sleeping pill to start working?" etc.)

I figured many of you out there might have similar animal-related questions, so "Wildlife Wednesday" was born. The column had a good run. Here are links to some of my favorite posts, including my bear attack post, which has BY FAR the most hits of anything I have ever written:
5. Ask a Zookeeper: Clever Capuchin Monkeys

Unfortunately, my life got a little overwhelming this spring (see An Explanation: Where I Have Been), so I had to give the column a temporary hiatus. 

I have been wanting to bring Wildlife Wednesdays back for awhile, so I was very pleased when Dan Corbin of contacted me to see if I wanted to host a zookeeper Q&A on his website.

Jobstr, by the way, is a website "where you can ask people anything about their jobs. Whether you’re exploring new career paths or simply want the down-and-dirty on the professions of others, Jobstr allows you to ask everything, from the most basic questions to the most provocative." (BTW, what an AMAZING resource for writers! Everything you could ever hope to know about any job in the world, from police officer to day trader to professional poker player!)

I happily agreed, and my Q&A is now live! Do you have an animal or zookeeping-related question? Please stop by and visit: Jobstr: Zookeeper / Animal Trainer. (Or, if it's a really long and complicated question, feel free to email me directly instead: lisa.chickos(at)hotmail(dot)com.)

Wish me luck!

Wildlife Wednesday: Promiscuous Birds

Happy Wildlife Wednesday! Today's article comes from, and it piggybacks on my romantic animal post from last week. Kind of a funny concept, but very telling as well. I've posted the first few sentences here; click through to read the rest of the article on Discovery's website!

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
By Emily Sohn
Thu Feb 16, 2012 05:00 PM ET

When climate is shifty and unpredictable, birds are more likely to sleep around.

The findings, which suggest that birds may seek out diverse genes for their offspring when they are unsure what the future will hold, might help predict what will happen as climate changes in the coming decades. If weather conditions become more variable in certain places, as some models predict, birds might adapt by becoming more unfaithful. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The overall message of the paper is that there is a lot of hope because females can still employ all of these mechanisms they use to find the best partner available,” said Carlos Botero, an evolutionary ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

The research could also offer insight into why people sometimes stray from their mates....

(Want to read more? Here's the full article: In Shifty Climates, Birds Sleep Around)

Thanks for tuning in, and please join me next week for Wildlife Wednesday. (I promise I will get back to my "Ask a Zookeeper" questions soon; life has been a little wacky lately!) Have a wonderful week!

Wildlife Wednesday: Animal Romance

In honor of Valentine's Day, today's Wildlife Wednesday post is great article by Roger Di Silvestro and Ernest Thompson Seton entitled Valentines Day: A Holiday for Real Animals. Check out a sample here, and then make sure to click through to the National Wildlife Federation's full article for more fun!

Elk, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
from Wildlife Promise

Dressing Up

Going out on a Valentine’s Day date? Chances are you’ll dress up to look top-notch for the one you’re courting. Similarly, nature gussies up many of her species for courtship purposes.

Consider the antlers of buck deer or bull elk or the mating plumage of male songbirds, ducks and peafowl. All of these points are important to attracting a mate, plus they can scare off competitors. Like a pricey power suit, bright plumage, antlers, bright spots on a bird’s bill or a lizard’s throat, say to potential mates, “Look at me and be awed. I’m strong and healthy enough to put energy into growing these doodads. I’m powerful and skilled.”

More generally, species-specific colors and appendages—a robin’s red breast, or a male mountain gorilla’s silver back—say, “Make no mistake about it, I’m a member of such and such gender, and I’m a dazzling example of our species, so what’s not to like?”

Gorilla, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Individual members of many animal species learn from infancy that appearance is important. In fact, through a process called imprinting, individuals come to identify with the look of the creatures that raise them, which usually means their parents and ensures that they seek mates and companions from their own species. But you can take a newborn animal and mess with its head: Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz once raised a rook (a European member of the crow family) so that it became imprinted on him; as an adult the rook, interested in mating, tried to stuff worms into Lorenz’s ears as part of a (misdirected) courtship feeding ritual.

Rook, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Bearing Gifts

Valentine’s Day is a prime gift-giving holiday, part merchandizing ploy and part courtship. But giving gifts to prospective or actual mates is not uniquely human.

Bonobo (a.k.a. pygmy chimpanzee) males sometimes offer fruit to females with which they want to mate. Many male spiders present dead insects to prospective mates, in part to keep the indiscriminately predatory females from eating the suitors. In some spider species, males wrap an insect gift in silk webbing so the female will be preoccupied with unwrapping it, further enhancing the males’ odds of escaping the mating process alive. (The males of at least one spider species give females just a wad of empty silk—ladies beware).

Bonobo, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Some male birds are champion gift givers, offering complete nests to females. The bowerbird of Australia and New Guinea is a famed example, the male building elaborate nests decorated with small, often shiny objects that attract female attention. As with gaudy plumage, the nest tells females, “Hey, I’m a male in excellent physical condition, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to gather all these bits of bone, shell, fruit et cetera so I can offer you this delightful house with a rain-forest view.”

Bowerbird, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Among red-winged blackbirds, the males that lay claim to the best nesting sites get females first. In European storks, the legendary bearers of babies, the nest is a really potent gift. The birds mate for life, but their fidelity is to the nest, not the mate. Male and female return yearly to the same nest—not to each other—which has the effect of making them mates for life.

Red-Winged Blackbird, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
May I Have This Dance?

Birds, like this peacock, commonly use their feathers for challenging rivals and attracting mates... Dancing occurs in most human cultures. In some cases, men and women even perform separate, gender-specific dances they watch one another do, the perfect chance to get a measure of one another’s physical fitness. Birds are riding that bandwagon, too...

Peacock, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
(Wanna keep reading? Visit the National Wildlife Federation's website for the conclusion of this article: Valentine's Day: A Holiday for Real Animals)

Thanks so much for tuning in to my weekly Wildlife Wednesday series, and make sure to tune in next week for my answer to a nature-related "Ask a Zookeeper" question!

Hope you had a wonderful Valentine's Day, everyone!

Wildlife Wednesday: Mankind's Love Affair with Horses

It's Wildlife Wednesday time! (I post nature-related articles the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, and I answer "Ask a Zookeeper" questions the first and third Wednesdays of the month.)

Today's article comes from Discovery News, and it tracks the unique evolution of the domestic horse--an incredible process that has shaped human history. Enjoy!

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Mon Jan 30, 2012 03:00 PM ET

The domestication of wild horses had a profound effect on human history -- offering nutrition, transportation and a leg up in warfare, among other advantages. But there are still many unanswered questions about when and where our species began its long love affair with horses.

A new genetic study offers some clues. Through the first complete analysis of equestrian mitochondrial DNA -- a kind of genetic material that is passed directly from mother to offspring -- an international group of scientists was able to trace all modern horses to an ancestor that lived about 140,000 years ago.

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
After horse domestication began about 10,000 years ago, the study also discovered, horses diverged into at least 18 distinct genetic lines. Those findings suggest that, unlike cows and other animals, horses may have been tamed independently in many different places around Europe and Asia.

The new research could help scientists decode the genetic secrets of modern horse breeds and top racehorses.

“Horse domestication had major cultural, socioeconomic, and even genetic implications for the numerous prehistoric and historic human populations that at different times adopted horse breeding,” said Alessandro Achilli, a geneticist at the University of Perugia in Italy. “Thus, our results will have a major impact in many areas of biological science, ranging from the field of animal and conservation genetics to zoology, veterinary science, paleontology, human genetics and anthropology.”

Cows, sheep, and goats had simple beginnings as livestock, with evidence suggesting that a small number of animals of each species were domesticated in just a few places between about 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Today, genetic diversity among these creatures remains low.

Horse DNA tells a different story, according to a new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After analyzing mitochondrial DNA from a wide range of horse breeds across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, and then using the known mutation rate of this kind of DNA as a sort of clock, Achilli and colleagues were able to connect all modern horses to a common ancestor that lived between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago. By comparison, modern humans first evolved about 200,000 years ago.

Previous research focused only on limited regions of mitochondrial DNA in horses. But by looking at the entire mitochondrial genome, the new study was able to categorize horses into at least 18 different groups that evolved independently.

One possible explanation for those findings is that many different groups of people independently discovered the dramatic benefits of taming wild horses thousands of years ago.

“The very fact that many wild mares have been independently domesticated in different places testifies to how significant horses have been to humankind,” Achilli said. “It means that the ability of taming these animals was badly needed by different groups of people in different regions of Eurasia, from the Asian steppes to Western Europe, since they could generate the food surplus necessary to support the growth of human populations and the capability to expand and adapt into new environments or facilitate transportation.”

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Results also showed that horses managed to survive in modern-day Spain and Portugal during a glacial period more than 13,000 years ago, when horses, humans and other mammals disappeared north of the Pyrenees. The area has shown to be an important refuge during that time for people, who later went on to repopulate Europe when conditions improved. The new study suggests that horses may have followed a similar pattern.

The new findings offer another potential explanation for the origins of domesticated horses, said Alan Outram, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Horses may have been originally domesticated in one area, he said, such as the central Asian steppe. Then, people could have transported tamed stallions to other cultures in other places, where they were bred with local, wild mares. That scenario would also create multiple distinct female genetic lines.

Either way, the new study adds important context to the puzzle of how horses infused themselves into people’s lives.

“One thing that is clear is that the domestic horse revolutionized human life, making us much more mobile, changing our trade patterns and modes of warfare,” Outram said. “Such changes affected the whole way in which societies were organized and interacted with each other.”

Wildlife Wednesday: Animal Careers

It's Wildlife Wednesday again, and today's question comes from Maya Hassan, who writes:

"I'm sixteen, and I really want to major in and have a job that has a lot to do with zoos and working with animals. What advice can you give me to fufill this?"

Photo Courtesy of John Gomes
This is a great question, and it's one I've received quite a lot through the years. Many people feel naturally drawn toward animals, so when they see a zookeeper tromping around with an elephant or hitching a ride on Shamu's snout, it seems like a perfect career choice.

And it is a perfect career choice for many people, but it's also way harder--and way less glamorous--than it looks. That's why it's so important to have an accurate understanding of what a zookeeper actually does before taking the leap and deciding to become one.

Photo Courtesy of Me sums it up perfectly: "Zookeepers do not have glamorous, high-paying jobs; they enter the field because of their love for animals. Much of their work requires physical strength, patience with the animals, and the ability to make detailed observations and keep accurate records. 

"Captive animals require attention twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so the hours can be long and exhausting. A special kind of dedication is needed to stay at a zoo through the night nursing a sick animal, or to get up in the middle of the night to meet a pair of rhinos arriving at the airport. Animal odors and the smell of cleaning fluids may be disagreeable to some people. Having to euthanize old or sick animals can be emotionally stressful. However, most people who enter the profession love animals and receive great satisfaction from helping and working with them."

(Here's a link to a recent post of mine, a list of nitty gritty zookeeper duties: You Know You're a Zookeeper If...)

Photo Courtesy of Me
Peter Dickinson also puts it in perspective: "Are you really sure that a zookeeping career is what you are after? It is not like other jobs because it is not simply work. It is a vocation, a way of life. Forget about making money, forget about becoming famous, forget about 9 to 5 and long holidays. Be prepared to face extreme cold or intense heat, rain, hail, snow, gales and lack of sleep. You are guaranteed to work long hard days when you have a hangover or headache and would have much preferred to have stayed at home in bed. It is highly likely you will have to skip holidays or days off at a moments notice. Don’t expect applaud or thanks or even sympathy because you will not get any.

"Still Interested? Then read on.

"What you will get is job satisfaction. The chance to contribute to our understanding of animals and an important role in ensuring that they remain on this planet for future generations to enjoy. You will have the chance to work outdoors in the best of weather too... You will become a member of a big zoo `family,` assured of a welcome wherever you go. Whereas there will be repetition in your daily routine, no two days will be exactly the same. You will not get bored. You will become party to one of the worlds best kept secret.... that zoo keeping is the world's best profession!"

Photo Courtesy of Me
Are you still with me? Awesome! In that case, let's move on and a little bit about how to become a zookeeper. Here's what WiseGeek has to say:

"Since there are more would-be zookeepers than zookeeper jobs available, it’s important to start working toward getting your ideal zookeeper job as soon as possible. If you live in a major city, it’s quite likely you have a zoo where you can volunteer. If you don’t, then work on volunteering at humane shelters, or look for private wildlife reservations where you can volunteer.

"Often zoos welcome volunteers in their early teens, though jobs with more responsibility may be held for kids who are 16 years or older. Some zoos offer one week summer camps to train those who would like to be zookeepers. If you can’t work at a zoo close to your home, consider saving up for one of these camps. Volunteering and experience with animals is an essential quality for getting hired at a zoo.

"Even before middle school and high school, begin studying and reading everything you can about wildlife. Subscribe to a few quality wildlife magazines... Also work hard in science classes and speech courses. As a zookeeper you will need to have a good background in animal science, but you may also need to make presentations to visitors to the zoo, so good speaking skills are a must."

Photo Courtesy of Me
"...College study to become a zookeeper should focus on animal science, zoology, marine biology, if you are interested in aquatic parks, and animal behavior and psychology. You might even want to ask a nearby zoo what qualities they look for in employees, and what type of employees they hire. This can help you direct your choice of college toward the schools best geared toward helping you fulfill your dream of becoming a zookeeper.

"While in college, don’t forget to keep volunteering at zoos or shelters. In fact, you may want to choose a college close to a major zoo, so you can get impressive volunteer credentials and superior training.

"In addition to lots of experience and a good education, a zookeeper must be physically fit. Your job will not involve a lot of sitting, so keep yourself in good shape, and practice some weight lifting. When feeding animals or cleaning cages, you may be required to lift as much as 50 pounds on a regular basis.

"Be prepared to work flexible hours. Zookeepers often work every day of the week, and may work a swing shift or midnight shift, since animals need around the clock care."

Photo Courtesy of John Gomes
Wanna learn more? Here's a huge list of great links (in addition to those listed above):
If you are interested in working specifically with marine mammals, I would also HIGHLY recommend this book, Starting Your Career as a Marine Mammal Trainer, by Terry Samansky. (This was one of my first purchases, and it has a great directory in the back filled with species and contact information for every accredited marine mammal facility in the entire country.)

Photo Courtesy of
I hope this answer was helpful, Maya, and best of luck as YOU start your career. Please let me know if you have any more questions; I can talk about this stuff all day!

Also, thanks to everyone for tuning in to this installment of my Wildlife Wednesday series, and make sure to check back next week for a brand-new nature article. Have a wonderful week!