Zookeepers wear many hats. I don’t think the general public realizes how many different tasks we do on a daily basis. In addition to the basic cleaning and feeding, we are also on the front lines of health care. Each morning zookeepers check-in on all of their animals. During these morning checks, we are looking for things like easily visible wounds, behavior abnormalities, and diet consumption. We medicate with topicals, oral medication, and in some cases, even injectables.
On top of all the work directly related to animal care, we are also carpenters, metal workers, plumbers, gardeners, fence builders, ditch diggers, dirt movers, “toy” builders, mental stimulators, data collectors, researchers, and educators. Versatility is key. Part of the reason I love this job so much is the variety of work I get to do on a daily basis. Zookeeping is a career-type that requires you to be book smart, possess the ability to read behavior, and be willing to do all kinds of manual labor oriented tasks.
On my first day of work at the San Diego Zoo, I was tasked with clearing mud and debris out of a moat that had clogged up during a recent storm. This wasn’t just a small mud puddle this is 12-foot long moat with mud 3 feet deep. This is the kind of mud that I call “boot suckin’ mud”, meaning that it sucks the boots right off your feet when you try to take a step. It was a hot, stinking, miasma of mud, feces, hay, pine needles, leaves, and anything else that was washed out of several large hoofstock exhibits. It took two of us six hours to clear that moat and it was most certainly not what I would call a good time.
Think that’s gross? Let me tell you about a time when I was cleaning the Malayan tapir bedrooms at the Woodland Park Zoo. For some reason, the frothy mixture of feces, water, and bleach was not draining properly. I wade over to the drain and reach down with the hose to flush it out. It works like a charm and all that nasty starts to descend into the depths of the plumbing. As I bend down to replace the drain cover, the mixture erupts from the depths and splashes me right in the face. Fortunately, for my eyes, I was wearing safety goggles. I was not wearing a mask, however, and my lips were definitely touched by a concoction of filth that I will not soon forget.
How about urine? You can definitely expect to be peed on or be splashed with pee at some point in your career. I have been doused by the bodily fluids of more species than I can even remember at this point in my career. I have had my head directly peed on when servicing free contact squirrel monkey exhibit. I have been peed on by baby gazelles during processing by the vet staff. I have had urine splashed in my eye when training a bear that got a little impatient and took a swipe at the mesh barrier. Trust me when I tell you this: You will get pee on you and it won’t always be your own.
The moral of the story here is this: be sure that this is a job that you really want to do. We do a plethora things that are not only not fun, but definitely downright disgusting. The parts you guys see when we are giving a presentation and interacting with an animal are by far the most glamorous and fun 20-30 minutes of our day. The other seven hours of the day are fraught with tasks that people with office jobs cannot possibly fathom.
So If you don’t care about never making a lot of money and don’t mind a little piss and shit in your face then this truly may be your calling. Not sure anymore? Go volunteer at your local zoo, rehabilitation facility, or even an animal shelter and find out before you invest the time and energy required to get into this field.