What I learned working at the zoo
I am a tour guide—and a pretty good one, if I do say so myself—at a world-famous zoo in the United States. I started volunteering because I love animals and the environment. I still do, but over the last few years, I have found that the primate Homo sapiens can be the most fascinating to observe.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Zoos are meant for everyone
Many people believe that zoos are child-centric places. Zoos are actually wildlife-centric places, where people of all ages learn about animals and how we share the earth with them. There is an emphasis on conservation and environmentalism. The word zoo is short for “zoological park”, which has animals for public education, as opposed to a private collection of exotic animals or “menagerie,” which used to symbolize power for the rich and elite. It’s meant to be for everyone, not just the toddler set.
Most animals in zoos aren’t from the wild
Many people ask how we capture the animals. We don’t. All the zoo animals are descendants of other zoo animals, unless found injured or orphaned in the wild, and leaving them would mean their death. Until I worked at a zoo, I did not know how many old Disney movies I had stuck in my head, as they all start off with an animal being taken from their family by poachers or hunters.
A lot of people learn about animals through cartoons
Similarly, people made so many references to cartoons based on animals that I watched them all so I could relate better when giving tours. That is how I know that King Julian from Madagascar is a lemur, that Zazu from The Lion King is a type of hornbill, and that everyone in Happy Feet is a penguin.Not every zoo can (or should!) have every animal Some people think zoos are like the drugstore, with a standard inventory that needs to be restocked. That is not true. Not every zoo has the space or climate for lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Zoos work with each other to find animals the appropriate social groups (or solitary space, if that is their nature) where they have enough space for them. One visitor, disappointed that their 3-year-old was expecting to see one type of carnivore who had passed away, asked me why we didn’t “go pluck another one from the wild.” The short answer is: the wild is not a superstore of spare animals for zoos. Love is love, with animals too.
Sometimes, people will see these exotic animals from around the world and assign them gender roles.. “That big one is the daddy. That other one is the mommy. And that’s the little Noah/Taylor/Ashley right there!!” is often heard. Actually, a lot of times, the loving couple will be the same gender, even if they are building a nest together. Love is blind through the animal kingdom.
Those habitats are better for the animals, even if you can’t see them
Many senior citizens have told me how glad they are to have seen zoos go from the old-school cages to modern exhibits that mimic an animal’s natural habitat, and allows the animal to follow their natural biorhythms (nocturnal, crepuscular, cathemeral, etc) —even if that means they see an animal that is sleeping. As one put it “animals don’t tap dance for us.”
Really, really: Don’t try to pet them
People who would never touch a pigeon on the street will try to touch an exotic bird (who also doesn’t takes baths) even when their is a sign that says “Please do not touch.” They will sit their kids on railings over a pack of coyotes. Be careful! Those signs are there for a reason, and it is stressful and dangerous for animals and birds to be touched if they are not in a petting zoo. Respect them and they’ll respect you back.
Layla is a zoo-keeper somewhere in the United States.
[Image via HBO]