Cheers to All of the Zookeepers

Cheers to the zookeepers among you.

To the people who wake up early, long before the sun rises to begin preparing the animals’ diets in the always-clean commissary. To the ones that rinse lettuce and kale for the sulcata tortoises, roll raw meatballs for the Sumatran tigers, and load bales of hay and alfalfa into wheelbarrows and trucks for the Grevy’s Zebras, white rhinoceroses, and Thomson’s gazelle that all share the same sprawling exhibit. Cheers to you who cut up squash and sweet potatoes just the way that the picky eleven-year-old three-toed sloth prefers. To those who hand feed the Magellanic penguins individual capelin to make sure each of the fourteen birds gets their fill.

 

Here’s to the keepers who scuba dive among sandbar sharks, cownose stingrays, lookdowns, and hogfish, scrubbing algae from rocks, and wiping down acrylic windows. In just a couple hours, little guests will press their hands against them and gaze upon animals that they may have never seen before, and may never get the chance to see anywhere else.

To the keepers who wipe sweat from their brows and shove hair out of their faces as they rake, shovel, and hose every inch of the animals’ exhibits, thank you. To those of you who do so every day in the searing summer heat of Arizona, in the unforgiving winters of South Dakota, the torrential downpours of Florida, and everywhere else, thank you.

Thanks to all of the keepers who crawl into small spaces and climb up onto wooden towers to implement enrichment opportunities, changes in the animals’ environment meant to mentally and physically stimulate them. Cheers to the keepers who stuff fruit chunks in nooks and crannies for the ring-tailed lemurs to encourage natural foraging. To those keepers who give the giant panda cubs boxes to tumble around with, and watch the serval rub his face in and curl his lips at the scent of cumin, and turn on the firehose for a curious herd of Asian elephants.

 

Thank you to all of the zookeepers who spend time between cleaning and feeding, logging behavioral observations of the animals you have come to know so well. Who notice if the aging western lowland silverback is favoring his left shoulder more today than yesterday, or if the female pygmy hippopotamus slept in a different spot than she usually does, or if the recently-introduced colobus monkey is on the outs from the rest of the group. Thanks to all of the keepers who record all of the nuances, looking for both usual patterns as well as the anomalies, never skipping over a single detail.

Thank you to the keepers who train animals to offer conditioned husbandry behaviors. To those who teach the African lionesses to lay quietly for their routine blood draws, who reward the bonobos with juice for allowing a veterinarian to sonogram them, and administer eye drops to a harbor seal that has been taught to tilt its head to the left, then the right, so that restraint is never required for its routine care. These behaviors are beneficial and potentially life-saving, but are not learned overnight. So, cheers to the keepers who spend months, sometimes years, training these behaviors through positive reinforcement, each time rewarding the animal with something they seem to enjoy like a special treat, a rub behind the ears, or their favorite toy.

 

If you’re not a zookeeper, say thank you to a one today. These people, who studied in universities and colleges for years, fought and clawed for competitive seasonal internships and even more competitive permanent positions, are actually paid very little for a job that is very important.

They show up hours late to dates with their significant others because they’re standing by for the birth of a pacific white-sided dolphin calf and the mom just went into labor.

They call their children over the phone at bedtime instead of sitting next to them, reading through a picture book because they’ve been asked to stay late to care for a tawny frogmouth that suffered a seizure earlier.

They wake up in the middle of the night when the phone rings and rush out to rescue a half dozen manatees that somehow ended up stuck in a drain pipe.

They spend the Fourth of July, not at neighborhood barbeques, but teaching children in neon shirts at summer camps how to help save sea turtles even if they live a thousand miles from the ocean.

They miss Christmas with their families because they’re dressed up as whooping cranes, hoping the chicks who are fooled by the costumes will eventually be released into the wild, helping to save their species.

They embrace the enormous responsibility of trying to save the California condor, the Scimitar-horned oryx, and the black-footed ferret. They’re trying to save the world, one animal, one species, one visitor at a time.

They teach the small children perched atop fathers’ shoulders why it is important to drink from reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. They reveal to the middle schoolers on field trips what the continued farming for palm oil may mean for the plight of Bornean orangutans. They ask the adults to make the switch to sustainable seafood to benefit entire ocean ecosystems.

They try to teach people who saw a chimpanzee mother and baby lounging in the grass, or fed a giraffe a leaf a lettuce from their own hands, or watched two polar bears trying to sink a floating barrel to care for the wild counterparts of these beloved ambassadors.

They get dirty. They go home sore. They wake up tired and do it all over again.

They rescue. They teach. They care. And, they hope at the end of every day, that you to care too.

So, to all of the zookeepers out there: an enormous thank you for all you do and happy National Zookeeper Week! Hope it was a great one.