IamA Zookeeper, AMA!
I've been a zookeeper for about 3 years and worked with tons of different kinds of animals from farm animals, to otters and black bears, lots of birds, reptiles (including a Komodo dragon), antelopes, and a couple big cats. I also do a lot of training and "performing" in wildlife shows at the zoo.
My Proof: My nametag/ID badge and work shirt (my name and zoo's name censored)
Probably when we moved the black bears to a brand new wooded exhibit. Building zoo exhibits isn't really an exact science, they're just built by random construction companies then checked by the keepers check to the best of our abilities since we know the animals. But it's honestly kinda trial and error.
Since this was a wilderness exhibit it had a bunch of natural trees and stuff in it. We wanted them to be able to climb and behave naturally, but we had a few off limit trees if they were too close to the fence or whatever and they were wrapped with hot wire (like an electric fence, but it was like netting instead of just one line) to keep the bears off. Well one of the bears went to another tree and made a huge leap onto an off limits tree. Then when she tried to climb down she hit the hot wire before we could get it turned off and got scared.
So she was stuck in this tree teetering over the edge of the exhibit fence and scared to come down. If she dropped down at the wrong time she'd be over the fence in the public area. She was up there for probably around 8 hours before finally coming down. We had to close off that whole area to the public and have weapons teams and spotters standing by in case she dropped down outside. I got about 3 hours of OT and free pizza to hang out and watch a bear in a tree. I have pictures somewhere I'll try to find.
Edit: found a pic
Bears in the same sentence as trial by error do not float with me lolol good story! And hurray for all the overtime and pizza! Thank you for responding! My bff works at a zoo and I love hearing her stories. Animals are quite the commotion makers.
That looks like a very nice and natural enclosure! Glad the bear was okay :)
It's over an acre of total space and cost well over a million bucks, but they seem to enjoy it
Damn bear has a better living arrangement than I do.
Many of the zoos I've been to have bragged about the extensive engineering that goes into their habitats. Or at least, that's what they say. Do you think that's a public image thing, and the normal reality is more like your experience?
That's becoming the new norm. Zoos aren't just about putting animals in cages to make money anymore, they're more about conservation and research. So they're trying to shift to larger, more natural environments for most of them. It's a slow and expensive change, but definitely in a positive direction.
The black bear exhibit above is less than 3 years old, and has over an acre of total space (2 exhibit areas a building, and some smaller holding areas) through the woods. But it also cost over $1 million for the one exhibit.
Edit: sorry I just realized I misinterpreted your question I think.... As far as construction, there's definitely a lot of thought and effort that goes into designing it. I don't mean to make it sound like they just throw up a fence willy nilly and put some bears in it and say "hope it works". They spend years designing, then constructing, then testing it. But animals just see the world so differently than humans, and they'll get in all kinds of things that we'd never think about. So ultimately, it still comes down to trial and error. We watch them very closely for a while (as in all day for days or weeks) when they go into a new place and make sure they aren't causing too much trouble.
That's definitely good! Helps with public image and conservation, so win-win. You have a fantastic job that allows people to interact with these animals. I would be a terrible trainer because I'm a total ethologist hippie, but I'm aiming for a DVM and a specialty in wildlife. It's always great to see people successful in such a daunting field.
See my edit, after rereading your question I feel like I totally misinterpreted it the first time lol.
Good luck with veterinary school! Our vets are awesome and I couldn't do what they do. I prefer having the animals all excited to me instead of terrified, but I'm glad someone's willing to do what's necessary
how are the otters? are they the best? they're the best aren't they
They are the best! I had lots of pictures of videos of some otter training sessions somewhere, but I can't find them at the moment, so now I'm sad :(
But here's an otter belly rub (actually part of their training allowing us to check their abdomen for health issues)
Which animal has the stinkiest gas?
The goats when they ate something bad and had explosive diarrhea for like 4 days
Have you ever had a particularly dangerous encounter with some of your more daunting animals (e.g, big cat or Komodo dragon)? If so, could you tell us about it?
Not really, we have a ton of precautions in place and strict safety standards to follow to keep our accreditation. So all the class 3 dangerous animals are worked "protected contact" meaning that there's always at least a chain link fence between you and the animal. So we can't just wander into the exhibit with them. We did have a keeper attacked by a lion not terribly long ago (I wanna say like 2002), but it was before my time there so idk any details. But that upped our standards a lot more so now we have to work them in teams of at least 2 keepers, and there's strict radio protocols for calling in and out when you go to work with them and stuff like that.
What is your favorite animal to work with? Least favorite? Why?
It's hard to pick a favorite cuz they all have positives and negatives so it kind of depends on my mood and what's going on for the day. For keeper chats I loved handling the snakes just because it freaks so many people out that come through and see them. For training, goats are a surprising amount of fun. They're about as trainable as a dog and very food motivated. When I wanna avoid the public, birds are fun to just hang out with if we're working in their exhibit or something. It's kind of fascinating how much personality they have.
Least favorite were probably chickens just because they weren't very exciting and smelled terrible. We still had pretty chickens though like lavender and jubilee orpingtons
Goats rock! I have two.
They're super fun! And a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. We had a show with ours, they can stand, shake hands, spin around, backup, kneel, and kiss their trainer all on command, and most of them can run the whole dog agility course.
man how do you train a goat?! im really interested in getting a couple when we're done paying off the wedding and have the money to make sure they're well cared for but would love to know how best to train them. i had heard they were as compassionate as dogs as well
Goats are awesome and way smarter than most people give them credit for. You definitely need to get more than one since they're herd animals and get lonely by themselves.
They're very food motivated, which makes them pretty easy to train. Find a treat they really like (we use sweet feed mostly, which is just grain with molasses, but sometimes we'll also use carrots or sweet potato or whatever that goat's favorite is) and learn about clicker training. I touched on it briefly here and there's a lot of good resources out there to get started, but I can go more in depth if you want.
It definitely requires a ton of patience though and you need to be in tune with the specific animal and able to read them. All our training is voluntary, you can't really force it, so you have to be able to tell if they're not in the mood or when they're finished with a session for the day or they'll just shut down. It's a great bonding opportunity though
What do you think of the movie by Kevin James?
Never saw it, not really a Kevin James fan.
Loved Jurassic World though. We all took our own raptor scene pics with different animals. But I think one of my coworkers sent Chris Pratt an angry tweet about his clicker use
This is a rude (to Americans) question, but how much money do you make? I was always told growing up this wasn’t a promising field because it’s very competitive but also doesn’t pay that well. Can you confirm/dispel? Thank you!
Not rude at all. The pay is totally shit because it is a competitive field, so they don't have to work hard to attract employees. I have a master's in biology (focus on ecology and evolution) and make $10.50/hour which is a little under $22k a year. Some states have unions so the pay is better, but they're also usually in bigger cities with higher costs of living. I live in a pretty rural area so I survive
No offence but I make about 5 times that much with a felony and no college education at all.
Its very cool that you are passionate about your job though, but you deserve to be paid much more for having a masters IMO.
It does have some perks at least. My zoo sponsors a few keepers every year to take a trip abroad to help with research or learn new techniques about animals in their dept. I haven't got one yet (seniority and all that) but we've sent people to Brazil, New Zealand, Madagascar, and all kinds of fun places. And I do legitimately enjoy the job. Very rarely dread coming into work
was it hard to find a job? is there a lot of competition?
im currently majoring in zoology and marine biology and i hope to find one !
It is a very competitive field (I mean, who doesn't want to be a zookeeper?). Get any experience you can while in school, whether it's at an animal shelter or vets office or farm or zoo or wildlife rehab or whatever. If you get an interview, be enthusiastic. They want people who are as excited about their animals as they are and who can spread that excitement to the guests.
Marine biology was actually my field of study, and it's even harder to find a job.
What is the most uncomfortable thing you have had to do at the zoo?
Uncomfortable physically? We assist in a lot of veterinary procedures, which require you to, say, hold a sedated animals head up in a neutral position or hold their legs out for an x-ray or something like that, which just means to stand there usually in a really awkward position for sometimes multiple hours at a time.
Do you ever feel bad for the animals for being locked in habitats instead of the actual wild?
Nope, zoo animals have it made. They get all the food they need (and good quality stuff) and don't have to worry about predators. They have access to 24/7 veterinary care for any problem that comes up. Most of them probably aren't even aware that they're not in the wild. It's not really like they have this innate desire to roam around aimlessly, they just want to survive. As long as all their needs are met, they're pretty content.
This makes me feel better.
I promise you'll never find anyone who cares more about these animals than their keepers. As discussed elsewhere, we're certainly not in it for the money...
And frankly it pisses me off when random people protest about "horribly" zoo animals are treated like we're a bunch of Nazi scientists from a grainy black and white film
whats wrong with using a clicker to train animals?
Nothing at all wrong with using clickers. (Assuming this is in reference to my Jurassic World comment?) It was about how Chris Pratt was using it, which was very incorrect. He clicked constantly and a bunch of times in rapid succession, like he was using it to get their attention.
In animal training lingo, clickers are known as bridge, which is something used to "bridge the gap" between when an animal performs the behavior you were looking for, and when they get the reward for it (usually food). A bridge can be a clicker or whistle or anything that is consistent and sounds the same. It basically takes of the place of saying "good boy/girl!"
So for example, if you're training an animal to jump through a hoop, going through the hoop is the behavior you want to reinforce. But you can't give them a treat as they're jumping through the hoop, only after they finish. So without a bridge, it's not exactly clear to the animal what's being reinforced because they get fed when they're just standing there after they've finished jumping through the hoop.
So instead, we associate the bridge with the positive reinforcement (the treat) and click when they are doing the behavior we want (going through the hoop). I can click in the middle of the hoop so the animal knows exactly what I'm looking for, even though the treat is delayed.
clever. can i buy a clicker?
Yep, you can find them at most any pet store or online I'm sure. They're dirt cheap too, which is nice.
Which animal is the biggest asshole that you work with?
I had a goat nemesis that absolutely hated me. We got off on the wrong foot when I was new because his horn got caught in my belt loop. So he thought I was pulling him by the horns which is a huge no no in goat world. He was the dominant one of the herd so we had many standoffs. Pretty sure there's gotta be some videos somewhere out there on the internet of me being chased around his pen and head butted in the ass
What's the craziest or weirdest sound you've heard from an animal?
Foxes. They can make really weird noises that are terrifying to hear, especially if you're in the woods at night. It sounds like a little girl crying and calling for help
Do you ever feel sad for the animals or see signs of boredom/frustration in captivity? I have heard some zoos drug some animals to keep them complacent.
Not really, enrichment and training are things we do regularly to help keep their minds active and encourage natural behaviors.
I have heard some zoos drug some animals to keep them complacent.
I seriously doubt there is any truth to this, at least in US zoos. I can't speak to zoos elsewhere.
Were safety precautions at your zoo altered in a major way after the incident with Harambe?
Not specifically due to that, I think we have it covered pretty well. I went into some more detail here about our weapons teams, but I honestly don't know a ton about how they work.
That incident was sad all around though and was probably anything but a joke to the people involved. For a zookeeper there isn't much worse than having to kill one of your animals, even for medical reasons. They're like a cross between a pet and a coworker. We spend 40+ hours a week with them, which is probably more than you spend with your own pets.
I do hope you didn’t think I was trying to be a smart alec or that I was joking around. That whole Harambe situation was so sad. I had just recalled talking with a friend about it when we had went to a zoo shortly after that whole incident and have wondered ever since what that did to zoos all over.
Losing an animal is always hard. I imagine it would be incredibly hard for someone in your profession.
Not at all, it's a perfectly valid question. Sorry if my response came across as hostile to you specifically, I was just trying to put it in perspective. But I sure am glad that meme isn't cool anymore
How did you get into this line of work? Did you go to school for zoology/biology or did you just sort of fall into it?
I have a master's in biology. I was hoping to go to medical school, but that never worked out so I did just kind of fall into this as a backup.
My daughter wants to be a Zookeeper or Wildlife Vet when she grows up. What advice would you give her to help her achieve her dreams?
Get professional animal care experience during school. Volunteer or intern anywhere - vet office, animal shelter, farm, wildlife rehab, or of course a local zoo/aquarium.
If you live near one, get a membership and just go often and talk to the keepers. Great way to network and we definitely recognize our regulars. Ask questions and show interest. Especially questions about the animals as individuals and not just species (their names and how you tell them apart, ages, favorite foods, whatever). We always appreciate people showing interest and take any opportunity to talk about them.
Most zoos also offer "zookeeper for a day" type of programs which are a good way to see if she's really interested. They can start as young as 8 or so with us. And we don't sugar coat the job for then, they get a pretty genuine look at the fun parts and the dirty parts. Summer camps too, although that's usually less behind the scenes and more like a daycare/class at the zoo
When working with big cats, do you ever get the feeling that they want to eat you? Do you pet them like a normal house cat?
We don't go in the exhibits with any dangerous animals; there's always at least a chain link fence between us and them. They do act like house cats in a lot of ways and I think the relationship is pretty similar to a pet cat. I don't think they're looking to eat us normally, but they're still wild animals.
One exception is the serval cat, if you consider that a big cat. She's a program animal so we walk her around on a leash and use her in shows and let kids in classes pet her and stuff.
Kind of a dead meme at this point, but what do you think of the harambe/cecil situation? most importantly, say if a tourist were to be attacked by animals, what would be the proper procedure and is shooting the animals themselves the last resort? also, have there been any recorded major events similar to this at the zoo you're working at?
We have a weapons team and a system in place, but a lot of that is pretty secretive even for employees who aren't part of it. From what I do know, there would be a radio call of a code red (for class 3 dangerous animals) animal escape.
There's a few weapons lockers around the zoo and the weapons teams would go get their stuff and report for a briefing. They have both tranquilizer guns and real bullets. The keepers in that dept who work with the animal that's escaped would be the spotters and try to keep eyes on it, but wouldn't approach. All other employees would be evacuating the public from the area.
I would assume that shooting the animal is always the last resort, but human life has to come first. I'm not privy to their specific protocols though.
We've never had a real incident, but we do have drills every so often for all our emergency procedures. We have had a few minor escapes (e.g. a rat snake, a groundhog, a kookaburra), but they just got out of their exhibits through a hole or whatever and were quickly found and not dangerous at all.
The only actual incident I've been part of was a fire in the behind the scenes area of our dept. It was just an employees car that caught fire when they cranked it to leave for lunch, but it was contained quickly so it wasn't that major. We also having missing children all the time, but nothing too major - they just wander off.
My zoo has had a keeper attacked by a lion in the past (around 2002) but it was before my time. That changed a lot of our protocols for working with some animals though. Like being way more strict about calling in and out over the radio when going to work with them, and always working in at least teams of 2 keepers.
Do you have any alligators/crocodiles at your zoo? If so tell me about them! I love these animals idk why. We go to alligator adventure down in South Carolina and it’s fun to talk to the keeps about their experiences and nicknames they’ve given some of the animals etc.! I wish I could work there to be honest but have no experience in anything to do with science, etc.
We do have an alligator swamp, but I've never worked with them so I couldn't tell you any specifics, sorry!
What department would you like to transfer to and why?
I like where I am currently, but reptiles would probably be my 2nd choice. I'd like to get trained in handling venomous animals. I've never worked with primates or the large African animals like elephants and giraffes and rhinos, so that could be cool too.
how is the night routine for employees at the zoo? is there someone always on site and if so what are they doing?
We have a small group of relief keepers that can fill in for vacations or sick days and they also function as night keepers. There's not someone 24/7 (well there's a security staff that patrols, but not animal care staff) but for a lot of the day.
Normal keepers work either 7-4 or 8-5 and the night keepers work like 1-9ish. The night keepers are generalists so they can do basic husbandry with all the animals, but not really training or specialized stuff. They mostly just hang out and monitor for problems and check in on sick animals and may do an extra feeding or whatever for certain routines. They also help with late night events and special things like that so we're not stuck there for 12 hours at a time.
When elephants vomit, how big of a mess? Also, are they loud?
Elephants can't vomit! (source: have worked with elephants)
Their digestive system is similar to horses, so they get colic instead of vomiting.
Learn something new every day!
I've never got to work with elephants, so I couldn't tell you
What do you consider to be the worst poop of them animals?
The bears can be pretty gnarly. They got sick off something once and sprayed diarrhea all over the walls of their den. Like seriously covered the walls and even a lot of the ceiling. It was bad
Whats the scariest animal at the zoo (most likely to eat you)?
If you were going to get killed by an animal which would you want it to be?
Scariest if they escaped would definitely be the orangutans, chimps, or gorillas. I've never worked with them here, but they could literally rip you apart limb from limb if they were so inclined and they're very intelligent. And they have thumbs.
I'd at least want it to be a cool story, so something like a komodo dragon would be a badass way to go. Contrary to popular belief, they don't kill by septic bacteria. It's mainly just massive blood loss though they do have venom which speeds up the process
Would getting a zoology degree help with pursing or getting a job as a zookeeper over a biology degree?
I really don't think it matters, they're all equally applicable. My BS was in molecular biology and genetics and my MS was kind of a combo of human biology and ecology/evolution.
Really biology is biology. You're not gonna learn many specifics that are directly applicable with any major (except actual zookeeping school like Santa Fe), but you'll learn all the fundamental concepts and how to think like a biologist with any of them.
Are you scared of certain animals?
Who's your favorite animal expert? Jack Hanna or Steve Irwin?
Not really. I love reptiles which freak a lot of people out. I have 2 snakes of my own at home. I'm not a huge fan of spiders and bugs in general, but they don't really scare me. Like I don't necessarily volunteer to hold the giant tarantula, but I will if I have to.
I never watched much Jack Hanna but I did love the crocodile hunter as a kid
When are you told what jobs you need to do/ what animals you'll be working with on a particular day?
All the departments are separate, so you generally work with the same collection all the time, although there may be different routines in the department. Like you work in predators so you care for that whole department, but one day you have big cat routine, one day is bear routine, etc. The routines are on the schedule 2 weeks in advance. But to move departments you have to basically apply for a new job to transfer.
We do have some relief keepers who are trained in a little bit of everything and help fill in for someone on a long vacation or after hours events and stuff. They're more generalists who know a little bit about all the animals as opposed to the primary keepers who are experts in a small selection
Whats your favorite animal?
I've always been a fan of penguins. Even before they were cool
Also whats the easiest animal to take care of?
Snakes are pretty easy. They only eat once a week or so (even less in the winter) and there's not much cleaning or anything to do on a daily basis. We do try to keep them on their figurative toes though by rearranging their exhibit and stuff periodically so they have a "new" place to explore. They can be frustrating through because they'll go on hunger strikes randomly and not eat for months
How do you personally feel about animal captivity in a non conservation light? have you/would you refuse to work for any of the less reputable zoos? Have you witnessed any terrible conditions for the animals?
All that matters to me is if the animals are well cared for. I have turned down interviews at some facilities after hearing negative things about them. I've onky worked at AZA facilities so far because they're a safe bet as far as top notch care. But I'm not necessarily opposed to working at an unaccredited place because they can still be just as good. Accreditation is expensive and some places like sanctuaries have no reason to go through it, but they can still be legit.
Depending on medical conditions and stuff, how do you get sick animals to eat the right food when they're sick? I don't know if they would be picky, but if they're used to a certain diet and it changes would they not eat much of it?
Their diets are all controlled and monitored closely. We track their weights every couple weeks at least (though some, like birds, are weighed almost every day) so we can coordinate with the vet staff and nutrition center to keep them in good shape. Most of them have treats that they love and get occasionally kind of like junk food.
But if they stop eating, and especially if they don't eat their special treats, that's usually a good first sign that something is wrong so they'll be checked by the vets. We can do IV fluids and vitamin shots and things like that in the short term and sometimes that'll sort of jump start them again and they'll go back to normal. If they fast long enough we'll kind of give them free reign and offer them everything we have to get them to just eat something, but total loss of appetite is never a good sign for an animal.
That's great to know! I deeply respect how much care is given and thanks for answering :D I was asking because I know a person that got sick when they were 5-ish and couldn't eat anything for about a week. He said he didn't grow much for a while bc of that. I thought that animals would be similar enough to a human and I was just curious to know how they would be taken care of.
Of course! That's definitely a concern, and it's also a matter of knowing all the animals as individuals. I've worked with a sheep, for example, thats had some problems probably due to an underlying condition we're still not aware of and we've honestly thought she was gonna die like 4 different times but she's still kicking. Usually at the beginning of summer she'll stop eating randomly and it lasts for weeks. She won't eat at all for a while then she'll start nibbling a little bit on occasion and we'll give her fluids and vitamins and stuff. But that's just become her thing over the last few years so it's not that out of character for her specifically. But her sister on the other hand gets super excited for food time and is always trying to get into the grain or hay if she's out (we let them out for exercise and stuff) and tries to steal her stallmates' food, so if she stopped eating even for a day she'd be going to the emergency vet because it's so out of character.
The veterinary science at zoos in general is actually pretty fascinating because it gives us a chance to see things that'd never occur in the wild, since the animal would likely die quickly if it was left on its own. For example we've discovered that arthritis is really common in goats in captivity after a certain age. But a goat who can't run wouldn't make it very long in the wild.
We'll also go to the extreme for the animals and it helps to contribute to a lot of research in veterinary science. We had a goat that underwent experimental open heart surgery to remove a thymoma (tumor of the thymus gland, which is on top of the heart) at a veterinary college. Of course the main goal is to save the animal, but even in failure it contributes a lot to developing new medical techniques and advances in imaging and things like that. We honestly had no expectations that that goat would return home, but he made it through and came back to basically 100% full health (and was also featured in a veterinary medical journal)!
We had a tiger who also had numerous surgeries to remove cancerous tumors, and it was mostly successful, but unfortunately he still ultimately succumbed (is that a word?) to the cancer last year.
We've tried electro therapy and acupuncture (I've got a picture of that somewhere too ill try to find tomorrow) and cryo therapy and all sorts of fun stuff on animals for different illnesses and injuries. It also helps contribute to human medicine in the long run for the more alternative treatments.
How did you get into that position? School? Hands on? It's my dream job but I never finished college. Thanks for your time!
It's a very competitive field to get into. Most of them require a BS in some sort of biological science, but hands on experience can also take you pretty far. It just depends on the specific facility. Most of them also have a volunteer program, so you could always try that to get your foot in the door and meet some people
Do you play video games? If so, what game(s)?
I used to a ton as a kid but not so much as an adult. Ive always been a computer guy and not as into consoles. Lately I've been back into Starcraft 2 which is one of my all time favorites
Also one of my favorites! What league and race? Considering how you're a zookeeper I'm guessing Zerg.
I'm a protoss guy. I don't play much online lately, I just recently bought the extra campaign packs so I've been working on them to get back in swing of it
What got you into this career/ howd you get into this?
I have a master's in biology. I wanted to go to medical school but never got in. I kind of fell into this job starting as a seasonal worker, and loved it so I stuck around.
How many times has a zebra tried to bite you?
None because I haven't worked with them. I do have a couple other battle scars through - one from a vulture, one from a rat snake, and one from a hog.
What does the fox say?
What is the best and worst (or most challenging) aspect of your job?
I love the public education side of the job. Keeper chats are probably my favorite since it's more informal than a real show and smaller groups so it's more personal.
The worst is, of course, dealing with sicknesses, injuries, and deaths of animals. But it comes with the territory.
Most challenging I guess would be just trying to be creative and stay ahead of the animals. Like trying to come up with new enrichment ideas to keep their minds active and you'd be amazed what kind of trouble they can get into in exhibits. Gotta constatntly stay of top of repairs and ghetto rigging things so they can't get into it or hurt themselves or escape
Are you ever bothered by seeing the animals in their cages/enclosures, rather than their natural habitat?
Answered this above here
In a few years (after i get out of school), I want to get and keep a bear cub. I just wanted to know if you could provide me with information about the costs, where to get one, and how big i should make their habitat?
I would strongly advise against it, and it's illegal in most states, but theres a handful where it's legal and a handful where it's legal with a permit.
Our bears actually came to us because they were habituated to people. Their mom was killed because she kept going into residential areas for food and someone found her cubs and fed them so they never learned to be bears. But bear cubs become full grown bears, and full grown bears can easily kill you, even by accident. We can't even enter the exhibit with our beats, there's always at least a chain link fence between the keepers and the bears.
They tried to relocate the cubs several times but they kept going back to houses to find food. They would've been put down too if they couldn't find a zoo for them.
Our bear exhibit is over an acre and cost well over a million bucks. And we spend probably tens of thousands per year to feed them and keep them happy.
Have you or anyone you know, ever felt romantically attracted to an animal?
Not to my knowledge
Crazy animal stories. I know you’ve got ‘em. What’s your favorite?
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