It was a cool, crisp, November morning at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Most of the leaves had fallen off all of the trees in the Malayan tapir exhibit, but on one particular Ficus tree, there was still one branch with foliage still attached.
Kelang, a 13-year-old female Malayan tapir sauntered over to the tree after being released from her indoor holding area. With her eyes on the prize, Kelang stretched her proboscis as long and as high as possible. Unfortunately for her, it was just out of reach. She let out a sigh of disappointment but was not yet defeated. With just a whistle, her calf Rindang came running over to see what all the fuss was about. Kelang sat down on her hindquarters, much like a dog might, and whistled once more, this time with a slightly higher pitch. Rindang kept her back feet on the ground but placed her front feet on the shoulders of her mom. From this new, higher vantage point, Rindang stretched and reached out with her nose as high as she possibly could and brought down a tasty snack for both her and her mother to share.
This story was a defining moment in my zoo career. I had always been told that hoofstock weren't too intelligent and that keepers who work with them are the grunts, the manual laborers that quite literally just picked up shit for a living. That couldn't be farther from the truth.
Hoofstock species are complex animals and individuals even within a herd have their own personalities. As prey animals, they are often quite flighty. One of the most important skills a hoofstock keeper needs to learn is how to move around these kinds of animals where so much as raising your arm, sneezing, or even just taking a step can send them fleeing across an exhibit. A keeper that can point out individuals in a herd and separate them from the group with minimal effort and stress is one who does a heck of a lot more than simply scoop poop.
I'd love to hear some of your career defining moments in the comment section.