I did an AMA last year, but have been requested a few times to do another one, so here I am!

I'm a zookeeper at an AZA-accredited zoo, working exclusively with cats. These are the animals I have right now:

  • Two prides of lions

  • Two Amur leopards

  • Two Amur (Siberian) tigers

  • Three cheetahs

  • Four jaguars

  • Three pumas

  • Two snow leopards

Two answer some common questions:

Yes, they know who I am. Yes, they all have names and different personalities. No, I have never given them catnip. No, you can't go in and pet them.

Now that those are out of the way, I'm happy to answer any questions you may have about big cats, zookeeping, conservation efforts, animal training, animal enrichment, or anything else. In short, AMA! :)

Comments: 132 • Responses: 23  • Date: 

catsrule36214 karma

Are they as cute live as they are when they're stuffed animals?

Do you get any protection?

iamthelionking18 karma

The cubs are always adorable. I've played with amur and snow leopard cubs, as well as the three tiger cubs we used to have. They are soft, curious, and playful -- the three main criteria of being cute, in my opinion. They get big fast though.

CabbageFarm12 karma

In a fight: Tiger or Lion?

iamthelionking16 karma

Another common question, and one I don't answer when asked at the zoo (that's the last thing I want children taking away from a visit -- this isn't a circus). But since this is a little more informal, I'll put it this way: We have Amur tigers, which are the biggest of the big cats. Most people don't realize just how big these animals are -- our biggest is 11 feet and 720 pounds of carnivore. I don't know what the "fight" would be like with a lion, but I know they could shred a human with little effort.

Linkiola11 karma

I visited a park here that has some big cats, Amur tigers, snowleopards, amur leopards etc.

The leopards just paced back and forth inside their enclosure, is that a normal behavior? Or was something wrong? They were pretty new to the place if i remember correctly but it didn't seem like normal behavior.

iamthelionking23 karma

Although pacing in itself is not a sure sign of anything, it's usually an indication that the animal is experiencing some level of stress. This could happen for a variety of reasons -- adjusting to a new home is certainly one of them. We're lucky to have the resources to make sure our cats are well-adjusted. We observe little-to-no stress in our animals, and when problems do occur, it's usually because of an asshole human. Those situations are easy to resolve, and it involves removing the human.

doctord12310 karma


iamthelionking20 karma

No. We have a very strict protocol when dealing with the animals. I've been nibbled a bit too hard by cubs, but I've never been seriously injured by a big cat.

Relaxolutionist8 karma

Because their parents can be so protective, how do you get to play with or be near cubs? Does this stress out the parent cats at all?

iamthelionking16 karma

They trust me. They are uncomfortable at times, but they understand my role (and theirs) in our relationship.

wantondstrction9 karma

I've seen that cheetahs are socialized with dogs so they aren't so skittish. Does your zoo do this? How big of an impact does it really make? What does a regular cheetah behave like?

iamthelionking13 karma

This actually isn't exclusive to cheetahs. Zoos will often do this with social animals who -- for one reason or another -- are no longer with their group. I worked at a zoo that did this with an African wild dog who was the last of his pack. Having a friend (even of a different species) completely turned his behavior around and appeared to significantly improve his final months. Our three cheetahs though, get along well with each other and generally exhibit positive social behaviors, so we've never investigated any other methods.

KingMotion8 karma

Have you ever described your job as playing with pussy?

iamthelionking26 karma

You would not believe how often I hear this.

Brgraham156 karma

Any awesome pictures you could post?

iamthelionking8 karma

I actually posted a few from this account before, but I'm pretty sure somebody identified my zoo and I deleted the posts. If you look, you might be able to find them somewhere, but my employer has a strict social media policy so I play it safe now.

foxesinsockes6 karma

This is actually what my 8 year old daughter wants to do for a living. What did you study in college to do that particular job?

iamthelionking12 karma

I studied animal science, but the specific major isn't actually that important. My counterpart studied psychology. In reality, what's more important for getting a zoo keeping job is practical experience. For someone like your daughter, this could start off as volunteering.

DP826 karma

Are the parents protective of their cubs around you? Do they allow you to play with their cubs knowing you're not a threat?

iamthelionking10 karma

When the cubs are first born, the biggest challenge is staying out of the way while still making sure the all parties are safe and healthy. They are extremely protective of their cubs, and are especially irritable. The hormones left over from carrying a litter of cubs exacerbates this. The amount of time before I have extended contact depends on the situation (type of animal, mother's personality and if there are any immediate needs).

Slater794676 karma

Would you consider owning a type of exotic big cat? And where do you stand on that issue?

iamthelionking15 karma

Absolutely not. These animals aren't pets. They require a lot of attention and dedicated resources which most people are not prepared to give. I'm against exotic pets in the strongest sense possible. In addition to their predilection for neglect, the black markets in which these animals are traded are cruel, unusual, and brutally inhumane. Yes, there are some perfectly capable owners, but for the most part people like the idea of having an exotic animal more than actually having to take care of an exotic animal.

gertrudeslime5 karma

I have always wanted to work with animals but got put off at an early age by friends/family telling me it was hard to find work. I'm 35 now and its still what I want to do. Any encouragement?

iamthelionking14 karma

Absolutely. There are many ways you can work with animals. If you're talking about a zoo setting, then the biggest factor in getting a job is experience. Most of us start out working at small zoos for years until a spot opens up a larger one. If you're looking for a broader field, consider being a vet tech.

iamaredditer5 karma

Have you ever seen another animal make a fatal decision and a big cat pounces? Such as squirrel goes into the wrong cage or maybe a bird decides to dive bomb the wrong cat.

iamthelionking11 karma

Yes unfortunate birds will land in exhibits fairly frequently. They inevitably become snacks.

miagolare5 karma

Do you need to follow certain protocols with enrichment, or are you allowed some creative license? Do you train them for basic procedures?

What are some personality quirks to the different species you work with?

What happens when they need to see the vet?

How do you feel conservation is going, and in your experience what is the best way to educate others about it?

iamthelionking19 karma

There are lots of suggestions for enrichment, but at ultimately the keeper decides what they want to do for the animal that day. The enrichment is often influenced by the animals' personalities, so the keeper usually has the best idea of what will make things interesting. For example, one of our Amur tigers is especially scent-oriented, so occasionally I'll hide some strongly scented treats throughout the exhibit for her to find.

We train them to voluntarily take injections. Before, the veterinarian would often have to dart the cats to tranquilize them and then give the injections. This was unreasonably stressful for the animals (for obvious reasons). In fact, the cats would recognize our veterinarians and start freaking out, because they knew someone was going to get darted or something otherwise discomforting was about to happen. For a while we resorted to disguising the vets (making them where masks so that the cats didn't recognize them).

Now, though, we use two keepers to administer treatments. The primary keeper will call the cat over and indicate that she's about to get a treat. The cat understands and offers her hip or tail to the secondary keeper in exchange for the treat. This is also how we sedate them should they need to go to the vet (eg for xrays or operations).

I'll be back for your other questions.

iamaredditer3 karma

Which cats have the best personality in your opinion? Do the big cats have their fav people? Which has the softest fur? Which big cats seem to play the most?

iamthelionking5 karma

  1. Best personality is one of our male jags. He is freaking brilliant. Very clever, but unfortunately very devious. He managed to escape a connecting tunnel between outdoor exhibits a few years back and forced us to retrofit a multi-million dollar new exhibit with old school locks from the 1970s.
  2. Yes, each cat has a primary and secondary keeper. The primary keeper develops the stronger bond. This is reinforced when we train them to receive injections -- the primary keeper always gives the treat while the secondary keeper always inflicts the pain (ie gives an injection).
  3. Snow leopards.
  4. The climbing cats (leopards, jaguars, pumas) are usually more active than the lions and tigers.

Starvingartist9283 karma

Big cat enthusiast here! Lots of questions.

Do you have any pictures of the animals you interact with?

How did you get your job?

Any advice on how to get a job with big cats? Like previous experience or anything?

Which big cat is the best to pet?

Have you ever cuddled a lion cub? Its been my lifelong dream to hold one.

Thanks for doing this! :)

iamthelionking7 karma

The biggest challenge to getting this job is the initial experience. You're going to have to pay your dues at a smaller zoo with less resources. Just about every zoo takes volunteers -- start by calling yours up and seeing what their policies are. Degrees aren't required per se, but most new keepers I know have a college education (though not necessarily in something like animal science).

In terms of which cats are the cuddliest/best to pet, I'd say snow leopards.

Re: lion cub. Yes I've had lion cubs jumping all over me while I lied with them before.

ReanimatedX3 karma

If things had happened differently, what other profession would you have pursued?

iamthelionking3 karma

Probably a psychologist. I've found that the methods used for training animals are often just as effective on humans.

TheBunkMaster3 karma

Are you scared? And which is your favorite, as far as prettiness?

iamthelionking7 karma

I can't think of any time I've been seriously scared of being injured. When cubs are born though, we all get really stressed to make sure they remain healthy. Zoos actually don't announce animal births until after it's determined that the animal is viable -- they don't want the publicity of an adorable baby animal dying.

Which animal do I find the most beautiful? That's tough. Maybe the jaguar.

jtaplin3 karma

Have you ever had cats that don't like each other and fight often? I know there may be fights regarding trying to be the Alpha with a lot of male Cats.

iamthelionking6 karma

Yes. We have two male jaguars who don't get along and have to be separated (one stays inside while the other is out on exhibit). We had a breeding recommendation with one of them and our female jaguar, but the female was actually head over paws for the other male. This only made the rivalry worse.

We also used to have four tigers -- a mom and her three daughters. They got along when the girls were cubs, but ultimately we had to move two of the daughters to another zoo; trying to get four full grown Amur tigers to play nicely with each other was a challenge.

TheCountryRedditaria3 karma

Do you have any insight into the Florida panther and the conservation efforts to protect it? What ways do poachers use to hunt these large cats? Just curious.

Thanks for the AMA

iamthelionking4 karma

As far as I know, the Florida panther is the only Puma left on this side of the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, environmental encroachment has exacerbated the poaching problem on these guys -- there's not much left for them to hide in. As humans invade their environment more and more, Pumas are killed by accident (ie hit by cars) but also humans perceive them as a threat. They are protected by some laws, but their future is bleak.

jdl13962 karma

I'm going to college for zoology. I would like to know how you landed such an amazing job because I am very interested in doing something like you.

iamthelionking3 karma

I wish there was a set of explicit steps, but really there's not. My advice is always the same: get as much experience as you can. In your case, pursue as many internships as you can. The better you become, the faster you get calls when spots open up.

mochaman51 karma

Would you rather feed 100 duck-sized giraffes or one giraffe-sized duck to the cats?

iamthelionking15 karma

100 duck-sized giraffes, although the giraffe-sized duck would be more exciting.