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

Is it true that zoos show their animals videos of other animals mating to encourage them? Other than putting a male and female in the same pen, are there ways to encourage them to get it on?

Asked by julia about 9 years ago

Hahaha, I have actually never heard of a zoo doing this! (Although, who knows? Could be true!) Generally speaking, mating isn't a behavior we really need to push, because animals are already hard-wired for it. We just need to provide and maintain a low-stress environment for them, and nature generally takes care of the rest. We also need to be aware of each animal's reproductive needs. For instance, many females only go into heat once a year, so we introduce males for just a very short time. If we miss our window, we have to wait an entire year to try again. Many birds will not lay eggs unless they are provided with appropriate nesting materials. And some animals are quite reclusive during breeding, so we sometimes have to close certain exhibits so the presence of viewers doesn't stress these animals out. (Insert off-color joke here. ;)) Science also makes it possible for us to now use artificial insemination for some animals that are more difficult to breed. Consider a female beluga whale living in an enclosure with only her offspring. Twenty years ago, she either wouldn't have been able to breed, or a mate would have been flown in from another facility. The trip would have been stressful and expensive, and there are no guarantees breeding would have even been successful. Nowadays, samples can be collected from the male and shipped straight to the female. A safer and more reliable method for sure!

When zoo animals get really old and sick, are they usually put down or allowed to pass away "naturally"?

Asked by Barry212 about 9 years ago

It really depends on the situation. The animal's best interests always must come first, so staff veterinarians closely monitor aging and / or ailing animals. If it is possible to allow the animal to live out its life, that is obviously the ideal choice. Sometimes though, euthanasia becomes the only humane choice--much like with aging or ailing cats and dogs. Saying goodbye to an animal is heartbreaking, and I can't tell you how many tears I have cried through the years. But an animal's welfare comes before anything else, so sometimes a hard decision must be made.

I'm walking through the woods and suddenly there's a bear standing 10 feet in front of me. WHAT DO I DO? (Sorry, I've heard 50 different answers to this, wanna settle it once and for all...)

Asked by The Great Outdoors almost 9 years ago

Thanks for the great question, Great Outdoors... There are so many misconceptions about this that I'm happy to share my knowledge! Many people split bear attacks into two categories: black bear attacks or brown bear attacks. I think, however, that it's infinitely more helpful to split bear attacks into two different categories: DEFENSIVE attacks or PREDATORY attacks. DEFENSIVE attacks are the ones we are FAR more likely to encounter in the wild: we've stumbled upon a bear, startled it, blocked its access or threatened its food, gotten between a sow and her cubs, etc. These attacks are typically not as life-threatening as predatory attacks, because the bears will generally stop attacking us as soon as they feel like we are no longer a threat. (Slightly heartening, I suppose...) Defensive attacks by brown bears are far more common than defensive attacks by black bears, because black bears evolved in habitats with lots of trees. When black bears feel threatened, they typically just scoot up the closest one. Brown bears, on the other hand, evolved in more open areas, so they are more hard-wired to stand their ground. If you ever encounter a startled bear, remain calm and do not run. Here are some tips from BearInfo.org: 1. Speak in a low monotone voice so the bear can identify you as human. 2. A bear may charge in an attempt to intimidate you – usually stopping well short of contact. 3. If contact is made, or about to be made, drop to the ground and play dead. Protect your back by keeping your pack on. 4. Lie on your stomach, clasp your hands behind your neck, and use your elbows and toes to avoid being rolled over. If the bear does roll you over, keep rolling until you land back on your stomach. 5. Remain still and quiet. A defensive bear will stop attacking once it feels the threat has been removed. 6. Do not move until you are absolutely sure the bear has left the area. PREDATORY attacks are incredibly rare, but they are exactly what they sound like: attacks where a bear is purposefully seeking us out and intending to kill and eat us. This is the stuff nightmares are made of, so it's obviously important to react differently. Here are some more tips from BearInfo.org: 1. Any bear that continues to approach, follow, disappear and reappear or displays other stalking behaviors is possibly considering you as prey. Bears that attack you in your tent or confront you aggressively in your campsite or cooking area should also be considered a predatory threat. 2. If the bear does not respond to aggressive actions such as yelling or throwing rocks and sticks, you should be prepared to physically fight back if it attempts to make contact. 3. Try to be intimidating: look as large as possible. If you are in a group, stand close together to give the illusion of size. 4. If you have bear spray, emit a deterring blast, preferably before the bear is within twenty-five feet. This gives the animal time to divert its advance. 5. If the attack escalates and the bear physically contacts you, fight back with anything that is available to you. You are quite literally fighting for your life. (Ironically, black bears are responsible for the majority of predatory attacks, not brown bears. This is why popular wisdom suggests only fighting back during black bear attacks and playing dead during brown bear attacks. Who knew?)

How much space does a polar bear need

Asked by gd over 8 years ago

Hi GD! Since polar bears are so intelligent and large, their space requirements are kind of mind-boggling. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums sets the standards for polar bear enclosures in accredited facilities, and they have an entire handbook on polar bears. (Here's the link: http://goo.gl/gLFh9S)

In terms of physical space, "the Manitoba Standards state that 1-2 bears must be given access to 5400ft2 of dry land, with an additional 1650ft2 of land for each additional polar bear. The Polar Bear Protection Act requires a pool with area of 760ft2, and with a deep end that is 9' or more deep be incorporated within the polar bear habitat."

In addition, "the landscape should be naturalistic (e.g., planted with grass, bushes, and trees for shade) and functional, including as key elements: a pool, foliage, habitat furniture (e.g., boulders, trees, logs, etc.), open/panoramic views, and substrate pits with various materials... Climbing structures and platforms can be used to provide polar bears with accessible vantage points that enable them to observe distant vistas beyond their habitat, and this can serve to increase the sensory complexity of the habitat itself."

How do you approach, handle and restrain an animal that has escaped from a zoo?

Asked by Chelsea over 8 years ago

Great question! It absolutely depends on the individual animal, and the answers can vary significantly. A domestic animal like a goat or sheep may simply be corralled back where it belongs, and a net may be adequate for a small animal like a raccoon or a crow, but a tiger will obviously require much more significant force.

In all cases, zoos start early by categorizing each animal by "threat level" and designing emergency plans to deal with a possible escape. Zookeepers memorize these plans, and animals are also trained to view their crates as "safe places." (This works wonders when a nervous animal suddenly finds itself out of the safety and comfort of its enclosure.) 

When an animal escapes, zookeepers generally start by corralling it and attempting to entice it back into its enclosure using positive reinforcement and the procurement of its crate. If this doesn't work, nets or lassos may be used. If these don't work, tranquilizer guns are often used.

Last but not least, zoos may use deadly force, but this is obviously the VERY last option, and it is only employed if the animal becomes an imminent threat to someone's life.

What are the major health issues associated with animals in captivity. Do zoos and sanctuaries have any health management plans in place for specific species?

Asked by CAT about 8 years ago

Hi again, CAT. Because zoo environments are so different from wild environments--plentiful access to food, absence of predators, little to no competition for mates, etc.--zookeepers members must work very hard to ensure the ongoing physical and mental health of their animals. In particular, zookeepers want to maintain fitness and decrease the likelihood of unwanted behaviors like pacing, rocking, increased aggression, altered time management, increased frustration and increased fearful behavior.

Environmental enrichment plans are a very important component of animal health management plans, and these plans definitely vary from species to species--depending on things like natural history, physiology, etc.

Have you ever considered becoming a TV personality, perhaps like those who bring interesting animals on to talk shows? You seem like you'd be a natural!

Asked by Marques almost 9 years ago

Thanks so much, Marques! Public appearances were actually a big part of my job in Alaska. I trained the pint-sized outreach animals--red foxes, great horned owls, porcupines, red-tailed hawks, baby deer, etc.--and I took them to schools and visitor centers and special events. I would love to get back into those types of outreaches some day. If you know anyone who would like to hire me as a TV personality, you just let me know! ;)