Tonawanda News

February 4, 2013

Zookeeping is more than just scooping poop

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The Tonawanda News

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.

Aside from daily husbandry, most animal exhibits need routine maintenance. This includes changing light bulbs, rearranging branches, and adding dirt and sand to enclosures. Horticulture also comes into play, with weed whacking, trimming trees and mowing the grass. Saving the grass clippings, tree branches and weeds makes for great enrichment. These items can be eaten, used as new bedding or can have food buried in to promote foraging.

Making the diets that the animals eat, is by far the easiest part of the job. It is relaxing and fun to prepare the food. Going to the zoo’s commissary or main food storage area is like going to a grocery store and not having to buy anything. Depending on the animals that zookeepers care for, many hours could be spent chopping, mincing, and weighing vegetables, fruit, dry goods, hay and meat. Food prep also includes unloading the deliveries of all the zoo food, many times for animals you do not care for.

Whether for routine vet exams or immediate surgeries, keepers are directly involved in the medical aspect of the animals’ care. Daily medications are often delivered by keepers. Hiding pills or better yet, training animals to accept medicine is an important aspect of the job. Zookeepers also participate in injections, blood draws, ultrasounds and X-rays.

Keepers are responsible for maintaining the areas where visitors come to look at the animals. This includes a lot of window washing, floor scrubbing and cobweb sweeping.

The amount of paperwork zoos keep is remarkable. Records of everything you can imagine are kept, including records of daily keeper operations, enrichment, medicine, training, how many people individual animals encounter and even logs for bowel movements and when females are about to go into heat. My favorite, sloths, only go the bathroom once a week, so it is really important to keep track of their activity.

A great zoo considers education to be one of their main goals.

From raising money to going on field research trips, keepers are heavily involved in making conservation happen in order to help save animals.

And yes, pooper scooping is one of the parts of the job.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to birdbehaviorconsultant@yahoo.com, or search for "Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan" on Facebook.