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.

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!