You may or may not have heard that a Florida zoo has recently experienced a tragic human loss. If you haven’t heard the details, I’m not filling you in. What I am going to tell you is that it was my personal loss as well as a loss for my husband, my friends, the zoo community, the animals in her care, animals in general, and you. She was not the first person to give her life to the animal care profession and unfortunately, she will not be the last. Most people do not understand what it actually means to be a zoo keeper nor why they do it. The face that zoo keepers show to the public is one that smiles and tells you how wonderful their animals are. You see them feeding animals (sometimes while holding a little dohicky that clicks), walking something furry on a leash, and picking up poop. Although you tend to see the latter most often, there is so much more that you don’t see. Animal Care is a dangerous profession, and those of us who take it on are well aware.
The types of animals in a zoo keeper’s care will vary, but all the animals they work with have the potential to inflict some level of harm. Zoo keepers are responsible for the day to day care of their animals, but they are also involved in their veterinary care. Some animals are restrained by hand for these procedures. Animals don’t usually like to be restrained, and even a baby antelope can leave behind a scar (my only lasting war wound). Dangerous animals are anesthetized for veterinary exams and such. Anesthesia is not 100% effective and risk free even in human medicine. Animals occasionally leap off the table mid procedure. If you are lucky, it’s not an animal that can eat you and you don’t make the evening news. I do recall hearing about an incident where the people involved were not so lucky. There are countless opportunities in any given day for a keeper to sustain injury or death, whether through routine contact with an animal or human error. Keepers are human. Have you ever made a mistake at work?
Ok, so animal care is dangerous and lots of poop is involved. Keepers must do it for the money (deafening roar of laughter from all keepers in all corners of the world). Working at your local “would you like fries with that” has the potential for higher advancement and earnings than your average zoo keeping job (even though the average zoo keeper has at least one bachelor’s degree). Waaaa? Yup, zoo keeping= little pay, dangerous, poop, working weekends and holidays (because animals eat every day), and I forgot to mention the constant need to research the animals in their care as well as the conservation issues surrounding them.
The reason they do all of this is for their love of the animals and their passion for the preservation of the natural world. Here is where you come in… you might not be aware that we are at war. Humanity is at war with the natural world. The human population is growing exponentially and this planet is struggling to sustain it. You may choose to ignore this war, dismiss it, or do something about it. It’s not just about wacko environmentalists and green this or that, it’s irrefutable. The human population is growing. Look around your neighborhood, any neighborhood on earth. Chances are you will see construction of some sort. More houses, more apartments, industrial farming, more stores and restaurants. What we sometimes don’t see is the habitats that construction displaces or the dangers it brings. Maybe in the jungles of India, but there aren’t any animals we need to protect in my neighborhood you say? Look closer… there are many species on the decline in the US alone. Not having hit the endangered species list doesn’t mean they aren’t close, and not being big and furry doesn’t mean they aren’t important. How does that affect you? One example is bees. Yes, bees! Our native bee species as well as honeybees are declining. Remember back in grade school when we learned about pollination? Ok, so 1/3 of all of our food depends on bees for pollination. 1/3 of all of our food. I’ll let that process… Are you concerned about bees now? Maybe we should protect them and the wild plants they depend on?
Where do zoo keepers come in? It really has to do with the zoos they call home. Without these institutions, the natural world has little hope for a lasting future. I’m going to let you in on a secret… Zoos welcome you with the promise of entertainment and leisure, but what they really want to accomplish is establishing a connection. That connection is the root of what it means to be a zoo keeper right now. Their job is to forge this connection between a visitor and the animals. They want you to be touched and inspired. They want you to care as much about their animals as they do. Why? Because Baba Dioum said it best when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Zoos and aquariums are not just here to connect visitors with nature. They are at the forefront of conservation. Their keepers are sent to aid conservation efforts in the field (all over the world). I was personally a part of a group sent into Mexico to aid with the pronghorn conservation efforts of our neighboring country). They organize fundraising efforts for conservation, they participate in breeding programs to save endangered species. Zoos are also, unfortunately and quickly, becoming a modern arc. For some species, the only population left is the captive one. Zoos do all of this and so much more, but they can’t do this without the keepers at the heart of it all, the dedication and support of all of their staff that share the same mission, and most importantly, they can’t do it without you.
The reason that I’m sharing all of this is because on the heels of a similar tragedy (that yielded a now famous documentary), a movement has gained steam. I’m certain that you are all well aware of how this movement has recently affected the largest aquarium in the world. It’s hard not to be carried off by the media induced flood before you can stop to verify it’s validity (especially with a heart wrenching picture and sad song to go with it). Unfortunately, the well meaning masses have done just that. In an effort to protect these animals they have helped render a devastating blow to the community that strives every day to save them and their wild counterparts. I am confident in the lemonade making abilities of this institution, however damage has undoubtedly been done.
Zoo keepers would be the first to agree that animals should be free and in the wild, even if it would mean an end to their careers. The unfortunate truth is that there is little wild left for them to live in safely, or at all. Whether by land or by sea, we are displacing the wild. Captive animals are not only ambassadors for their species, they are heralds of the plight that envelops their homeland. They stand or swim on stages leaving you in awe and wonder while passionate keepers convey their message with hope and a smile, all the while clinging to the thought that you will leave there wanting to help save those animals and their habitats.
The behaviors that these animals perform for you are a result of hours of training. Training is mental stimulation for these animals; it’s like an ongoing and rewarding puzzle that keeps them mentally strong. Animals are put through training even if they never visit a stage, just to reap the benefits. Training is also incredibly useful for their health exams and procedures. It decreases stress and minimizes the danger for everyone involved. If those behaviors are presented for your entertinment, please don’t misunderstand.
Please don’t feel bad for the animals in accredited zoos and aquariums. Those animals are cared for, loved, and protected by people that dedicate and sometimes give their lives for them and their cause. Feel bad for those that remain in the wild. Direct your anger at the fact that they are in danger of poachers, pollution, and of losing their homes to shopping malls or factories. I beg you to not be a part of the blind masses, for this cause or any. In a world where our once innocuous opinions are now given a voice through social media, we must remember that a single word can begin an avalanche of negativity. We must remember to ask questions first. Before you form an opinion on the matter at hand, ask questions and then decide for yourself what is right. We must be informed before we take a side. Don’t just take my word for it either.
National Zoo Keeper week is July 17-23. Yes, there is such a thing. National Zoo Keeper Week started in 2007 and is recognized by the House of Representatives. This is the perfect opportunity to visit your local accredited zoo or aquarium and talk to those passionate (and probably dirty) individuals that dedicate their lives to their animals. Ask your questions, any questions. They will be more than happy to spare a moment to talk to you about their animals. Thank them for what they do if you feel they are deserving. Most importantly, help support these institutions that are helping to save and preserve the natural wonders entrusted to the human race. Help them to protect and save this world, it’s the only one we have.
Dedicated to those who have given their lives to the wild and in loving memory of Stacey♡
For more information please visit:
American Association of Zookeepers at http://www.aazk.org
Association of Zoos and Aquariums at http://www.aza.org
World Association of Zoos and Aquariums at http://www.waza.org