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: 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!)

Rest in Peace, Sydney the Giraffe

Sydney the Giraffe (Photo Courtesy of ZooWorld)
Thirteen years ago, I nervously filled out a volunteer application and began my first real (if unpaid) zoo job at ZooWorld of Panama City Beach, FL. I was given a rake, a bucket and an introductory lesson about the petting zoo. Here are the highlights:

1. The goats will figure out a way to escape. It is your job to play linebacker and catch them before they make a dash for the rest of the zoo.
2. The llamas really do spit. Oh, and they hate you. For real. Never look them in the eye.
3. The goats will realize your fear of the llamas very quickly. They will spend most of their time INSIDE the llama enclosure. Don't you DARE go in there after them, or you will be sorry.
4. The pigs are fantastic, and they are actually really smart. Rethink your decision to eat pork.
5. Stay away from the dromedary camel. He is the only creature in the entire petting zoo scarier than the llamas.
6. You will meet a giraffe named Sydney, and he will completely rearrange your destiny.

Okay, maybe no one TOLD me Sydney would rearrange my destiny, but he did. Literally and profoundly.

It didn't happen immediately. I was mostly nervous around him at first. That long, bowlegged stance... The super flexible neck... The muscles that rippled like waves through his chest... Sydney may as well have been an alien--and a wicked fast alien at that--so I mostly just dropped off his food and stayed as far away from him as possible.

But then something strange happened. He started watching me. He began perking up whenever he saw me, and he began leaving guests on the platform to run over to the barn to see me.

Did this animal actually know who I was? Did this animal actually (*gulp*) LIKE me?

The realization that Sydney had preferences--just like you and I have preferences--was astonishing. And the realization that I was one of his preferences was even more amazing.

I began spending all my extra time with him. I sketched him, I sang to him, I sat quietly and watched him eat. And he began responding to me, too--greeting me differently than he greeted anyone else, leaning in for kisses and staring after me long after I walked away.

Some of my favorite memories are the afternoons I spent cleaning his stall. I would lock him outside in his yard, but he would often lean in and stick his neck through his open window. He was HUGE--nearly seventeen feel tall--and I would usually be so absorbed in my raking and hosing that I wouldn't even notice his presence until he extended that great big tongue and wrapped it around my ponytail. Or, even better, when he would sometimes simply lower his head onto mine until I felt the gentle weight of his jawbone against the top of my head. He never pushed, and he was never fussy. He simply moved his head along with me, following my every action like an oversized giraffe hat.

When I left for college, I cried at the realization that I would no longer be able to interact with Sydney on a daily basis. But I realized as he watched me leave that I was no longer the same shy, hesitant girl he first met. My attachment to Sydney was strong enough to build my confidence and send me on a career path that would lead me to zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country.

So where did that leave Sydney? At ZooWorld of Panama City Beach, FL, where he delighted and amazed guests for the next thirteen years. Where he was loved and spoiled by the public and by his keepers. Where he undoubtedly launched countless other zookeeping and environmental education careers.

Where--no matter how far away I found myself--he was always, always, always loved by me.

This morning, Sydney passed away. At nearly 30 years old, he was a very, very old giraffe.

My sadness over his passing is profound, and I can't imagine how many other lives he touched. The two years I spent with him were a gift, and I will never, ever, ever forget the gentle weight of his jaw as he leaned inside his stall to spend time with me.