ZOO TO YOU: A reward greater than money

1/9/2014

Many children dream of being a zookeeper when they are young, envisioning a career that allows them to work closely with some of Earth's most interesting and magnificent creatures. The romanticized view of zookeeping is a far cry from the reality, but it does involve a daily interaction with wild animals that is difficult to experience any other way. Small special moments between keeper and animal are what enable keepers to do what they do for a living. The work is physically demanding, days can be long and the animals need you regardless of what the weather is, or if everyone else is opening Christmas presents. You won't ever be financially wealthy on a keeper's salary, but you may be rich beyond monetary rewards with memories and unique experiences that few other folks can claim.

Many children dream of being a zookeeper when they are young, envisioning a career that allows them to work closely with some of Earth's most interesting and magnificent creatures. The romanticized view of zookeeping is a far cry from the reality, but it does involve a daily interaction with wild animals that is difficult to experience any other way. Small special moments between keeper and animal are what enable keepers to do what they do for a living. The work is physically demanding, days can be long and the animals need you regardless of what the weather is, or if everyone else is opening Christmas presents. You won't ever be financially wealthy on a keeper's salary, but you may be rich beyond monetary rewards with memories and unique experiences that few other folks can claim.

When our new panda cubs ventured outside for the first time last October, keepers accompanied them. As the roly-poly cubs explored, their mother, Ember, was more focused on securing treats from her keepers. Standing on her hind legs, she jumped up and down against the legs of the staff to convince them to hand over the grapes. Who wouldn't want that job? These rewarding moments may range from the discovery of newly hatched chicks that you have worked on trying to propagate for years, to watching the wobbly efforts of a newborn addax or giraffe calf as it tries to stand for the first time. Maybe it's the chirping welcome from the cougar, greeting his keeper to the barn each morning, or watching the wild antics of the two cougar kitten orphans as they test each other's limits! Our roadrunner, Elmer, used to bring gifts to his keepers, a favorite stick or a tasty dead mouse, and drop it at their feet. Hard to resist that kind of treatment! The animals don't have to be "characteristic mega-vertebrates" (you know, the tigers, giant pandas and the like) to hook you. Our Wild Asia keepers recently constructed a climbing structure for their goral, and although they would see hoofprints in the frosty surfaces each morning, they could never catch a glimpse of the goral using it. This morning, I received a photo from an excited keeper of one of our goral proudly standing atop the highest level, proclaiming he was king of the hill. Our staff works hard, and constantly, to make the lives of our collection animals the best they can be. They are always thinking (probably as they rake, shovel, scoop poop, and scrub bowls and water tubs) to concoct new and imaginative ways to enrich the lives of their animals. Just this week, our bird keeper made a tiny snowman adorned with craisin buttons and peanut eyes, and topped off with a "Chex" top hat. She presented this 10-inch-high masterpiece to the tiny Goeldi's monkeys, who reacted wonderfully. Eventually they got their courage up to approach this stranger, and ate all the edible parts.

These special moments are tempered with trying times as well, from animal illness or injury, to the loss of a favorite. Not long ago, a newborn Goeldi's monkey, weighing just ounces, required several days of round-the-clock feedings when Dad was too helpful in caring for the infant, and wouldn't return it to Mom to nurse. It became so weak it was unable to cling to an adult, and was in danger of falling to the ground or starving if staff didn't intervene. Fortunately, we were able to nurse it back to health and return it to the family group, where it still thrives today. Responsibilities can weigh heavy when you hold that life in your hands, even such a tiny one.

Introductions of animals new to each other are also an anxious time, especially if they possess teeth, claws or horns capable of inflicting injury on one another. When these introductions go well and the animals bond, it is a rewarding feeling and the result of much careful planning. We work hard to maintain our animals' environments to keep them free from anything that might cause injury. Despite that, injuries do occur as animals do what they like. Our delightful anteater "Sniffy" decided one day that he could climb trees. Once up in the tree, he didn't know how to get down, and broke his foreleg in a tumble to the ground. Several hours of surgery, and numerous screws and pins later, Sniffy was put back together and relegated to a smaller holding stall to reduce his activity level while the bones healed. Upon return to his yard weeks later, his first action was to return to the scene of the crime, and try to climb again. He seems to have gotten the arboreal bent out of his system, thank goodness, but when your charge is in surgery, it is worrisome.

And, as with human life, we deal in life and death issues, as well. No animal lives forever, and while zoo animals often live longer than their wild counterparts due to a safer, predator-free environment, proper nutrition and veterinary care, they still will leave us at some point. Such was the case this weekend when our black rhino, "Howdi," became ill. At almost 25 years of age, he was well past the median life expectancy of black rhinos (17.8 years). And while he had experienced some health issues as a young animal, he had a long life and was well loved by all who worked with him. This past week, staff maintained a three-night, 24-hour vigil in the barn, keeping him company, recording his condition and providing hands-on medical care to do all we could to help cure him and keep him comfortable. However, on Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by a dedicated and caring zoo staff, he stopped breathing, and in doing so took a little piece of each of us with him. It is hard to know and care for an animal for that long, especially one as personable as Howdi, without being affected deeply by his loss.

Like our domestic pets, many of our animals have special "personalities" that draw us in and tie strings around our hearts. Zookeepers quickly learn that their job is not all fun and fuzzy. Lifting heavy bales of hay or sacks of feed, scooping poop, shoveling snow or breaking ice so animal needs can be met, or dealing with extreme heat, wind or other conditions, working at a zoo is a labor of love, and I can attest that some of the best people, from animal staff to maintenance and educators, work right here at Lee Richardson Zoo.

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.

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