Tonawanda News


February 4, 2013

Zookeeping is more than just scooping poop

Tonawanda News — A common misconception is that there is a fine line between a child that has pets at their home and a zookeeper who takes care of wild animals. It is true, that both pick up after their animals, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Next time you are at an aquarium or zoo, be aware that zookeepers can hear you. Although you might not see us, we can hear your conversations. When you are in front of an exhibit, there is a chance that we are behind the scenes. 

I have heard the extremes: “That must be such a fun job, playing with the animals all day,” and “This is why you have to go to college, or else you will be picking up after animals.” The second statement makes me laugh because most zookeepers and aquarist have two- or four-year degrees related to science, and it is highly competitive to “pick up after the animals.”

Zookeepers are animal trainers, landscapers, construction workers, chefs, public speakers, electricians and secretaries.

Animal training does not always equate to show behaviors. Zookeepers also train husbandry behaviors such as training animals to voluntarily give blood and urine, offer their paws for nail trims, and open their mouth for dentistry work. 

Training and enrichment seem to go hand in hand. Enrichment, a topic I have mentioned many times, allows animals to make choices and use their problem-solving skills (mental and physical) to interact with keepers and devices for rewards.

Zoo animals, like pets, go the bathroom. Some animals go in a designated spot every day, like house cats. Some animals go the bathroom while they walk and many go everywhere. Keepers use powered hoses, detergents, rakes, scraping devices, dustpans, shovels and even wheelbarrows to make sure the enclosure is clean for the animals. Of course, it smells. The worst smells and textures usually come from the cutest animals. The worst would have to be tamandua and kinkajou. If you are not familiar with these species, do a quick internet search to see how cute they are.

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