Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

Best Rated

Are camels particularly friendly animals, or do they have a temper? What would they do if they felt scared or threatened?

Asked by CNHolmberg about 9 years ago

Hi Charlie! You are in luck, because the "animal love of my life" happens to be a huge Bactrian camel named Knobby. (He lives at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and he LOVES visitors!) I didn't know too much about camels until I started working with Knobby, but I sure became an expert quickly. I learned that camels (especially male camels) can be incredibly ornery. They can also be very dangerous, and some people die from camel attacks every year. When camels feel scared or threatened, they generally spit, stamp their feet and swing their heads. They attack by trampling and even crushing, and males grow very long incisors they use for fighting. Now, I don't want to suggest camels are blood-thirsty killers or anything. They are just HUGE, and they are incredibly powerful. Males can stand more than seven feet tall at the hump, and they can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. I would probably stereotype a camel's disposition as similar to a donkey or llama--although individual camels obviously vary as widely as humans. Camels are also very smart, and they can be trained to be great companions if you are focused and dedicated. Speaking from my experience, I began working with Knobby when he was only six months old. As he grew, he began spitting and charging and generally being terrifying. It got to the point where I didn't even feel comfortable going in his enclosure with him. (One time, he even cornered and trapped me behind a gate, and it literally crossed my mind that he may kill me.) Instead of giving up on him or reverting to the old methods of negative training, I began doing positive reinforcement training with him through his bars. After many, many, many months of hard work, I was able to not only enter his enclosure with him, but to lead him through a variety of complicated commands, including sitting on command, rolling on his side, presenting his feet for inspection, wearing a halter and letting me to sit on his back. As time passed, he grew to be my very favorite animal, and I grew to be his favorite human. He ran over to me whenever he saw me, and he cried his head off whenever I left. We had an amazing relationship (and I still miss him every single day), but I never grew complacent with him, because I knew I always had to respect his strength. Even when we were in the middle of our training sessions, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. And whenever he got too excited, I always cut our training sessions short. Better safe than sorry. ;)

What types of animals keep themselves the cleanest?

Asked by Anna about 9 years ago

What a great question! I had to think about this a lot, actually, because every time I found myself settling on an animal, I would remember some gross thing about them that would make me laugh. ;) Most animals tend to keep themselves fairly clean, but I think the cleanest animals are the ones whose cleanliness is critical to their survival. Birds immediately come to mind, because they can't fly with gross, mangled and tangled feathers. Sea otters also come to mind, because they don't have thick layers of insulating blubber like other marine mammals. Instead, they must constantly clean and fluff their fur to keep it waterproof. This action also traps air bubbles in their underfur, and these bubbles insulate them as well.

Is your work with animals the focus of your writing career?

Asked by tomjones about 9 years ago

Thanks for the question, Tom! My first novel (the one that landed me a literary agent but didn't get picked up by any publishers) was about a girl who worked on a beluga whale research team in Alaska. It was very much inspired by my experience working with marine mammals. I have a few other zoo-related novels up my sleeves, but I've decided not to limit myself to only writing about working with animals. Instead, I focus on nature as a whole, and I've decided my literary mission statement is "to inspire readers to care about nature by crafting stories that highlight the interconnectedness of humans and the world around us." Sounds like a mouthful, I know, but I hope it will keep me focused. I also hope it will stop me from writing about every random thing that strikes my fancy. (Right now, I'm revising a near-future thriller called ESSENCE. It's about a seventeen year-old who lives under the control of San Francisco’s cult-like Centrist Movement. She stumbles upon a group of free-spirited Outsiders living in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park, and she must struggle to stay true to herself while realigning her values and pushing herself to become one of them.) Crossing my fingers the publishers like it!

Have you had the pleasure of caring for koala bears? Are they as docile as they appear?

Asked by Sheba18 about 9 years ago

I actually never have, although I have visited them at sanctuaries in Victoria. Probably one of the most adorable creatures in the world, aren't they? People I know who have worked with koalas have really enjoyed them. They tend to be fairly low-key, and they make excellent outreach animals if they are trained consistently. The public loves them, and they are super charismatic ambassadors for their species. I have been told not to be fooled by their cuteness, though! Although they are known for being sleepy and slow-moving, they have wicked claws and incredibly strong teeth. They can be food aggressive, and males can be quite dominant sometimes. Their keepers must never be lulled into carelessness by their cartoon-like appearance. Another weird fact about koalas is that males have a scent gland on their chest that oozes a smelly, oily substance. They mark their territory by rubbing this oil on tree trunks, and the smell is PUNGENT. Definitely another hazard of the job!

Could you ever see yourself dating someone who *didn't* like animals (or was just generally indifferent to their plight)?

Asked by The Moz about 9 years ago

Never! I don't think it's necessary to find a partner who is your exact clone, but my love of nature and the outdoors is such an intrinsic part of who I am that I can't imagine having much in common with a person who didn't share these interests.

When a trainer gets attacked by an animal, is it usually because the trainer did something wrong? Or do wild animals sometimes just revert to their untamed nature?

Asked by zazreal about 9 years ago

I would say it is almost always zookeeper error. Of course, that error extends to our inability to sometimes read the cues our animals are sending us, so I guess it's really a combination of human error and animal wildness. No matter how often we work with a particular animal, we must never forget it is wild. It operates much more instinctually than a domestic animal, so its behavior can be much more unpredictable. A sudden noise, a smell... Many, many variables can affect that animal's behavior, so we must become experts at the vocal and non-vocal cues the animal gives us. We must also never think we are "above" the safety protocols put in place for us, and we mustn't be too proud to cut short a training session if we sense a change in our animal's behavior. The trick is just to keep control and to end our session on a positive note. We can always come back and try again later.

In your time with animals, has there ever been an instance where you felt that your life was in danger?

Asked by luke about 9 years ago

Only once. And ironically, it was with a camel. (I have chuckled over this countless times, because camels don't carry the street cred bears and big cats do. If you tell someone you almost got killed by a lion, you become a superstar. If you tell someone you almost got killed by a camel, they just shake their heads and laugh at you.) That being said, this situation definitely wasn't a laughing matter at the time. This particular camel Knobby was about 1,400 pounds and more than six and a half feet tall, and he had the temperament, strength and temper of a MASSIVE unbroken stallion. I had been working with him for a few months, and we had made amazing progress together. I still knew he was dangerous, but I guess I started to be lulled by our familiarity. I began to think he viewed me as his "buddy," and I stopped paying as close attention to our safety protocols. I was working the late shift at the time. One evening, I was running really behind schedule, and I didn't make it to his enclosure until the zoo was closed and almost all the other keepers had left for the day. Even though I knew it was best practice to make sure other keepers were around in case I needed help, I decided to enter his enclosure and do some solo cleaning anyway. There was a faulty latch on one of the gates, and the fence sometimes got stuck closed. I should have left it completely open, but I didn't. Instead, I walked right in and closed the gate behind me. I started raking, but it became clear very quickly that Knobby was in a rare mood. Instead of avoiding me like he usually did, he began chasing me around the enclosure. I used my rake to try to block him, but he began huffing and kicking and trying to bite and push me. I tried to make a run for that faulty gate, but of course, it was stuck. I didn't have enough time to fiddle with it, so I ended up hiding behind a swing gate with my back pressed against the barn wall. Knobby stamped and pressed against the other side of the gate for several minutes, and it literally occurred to me that he may crush me between the gate and the wall. Thankfully, he got distracted by something after ten minutes or so, and I was able to make a run for it. When I finally escaped, I immediately collapsed to the ground outside his enclosure and burst into tears. It's difficult to describe the emotions I felt at that moment. Relief, for sure, but I also felt betrayed--like Knobby should have known better. He was supposed to LIKE me; how could he consider hurting me? This is when I realized I had begun treating Knobby like a pet. This is the most critical mistake you can ever make as a zookeeper, because this is when the majority of accidents happen. Once I came to terms with this realization, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started my evening training session with him (outside the bars). We went on to have many years of wonderful interactions, and I eventually taught him to sit on command, roll on his side, present his feet for inspection, wear a halter and let me to sit on his back. But one thing I NEVER did again was take his size and strength for granted. He became my very favorite animal at the zoo, but I never entered his enclosure again without fully formulating an escape plan first.