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

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Have you witnessed any grizzly animal attacks during your time in zoos (on humans or other animals)? Any one in particular stand out as the worst?

Asked by grizzly adamz about 5 years ago

Hi Griz! Believe it or not, I actually haven't seen any grisly attacks--just occasional bites or scrapes or bruises. There are a lot less attacks than you might think, and this is partially due to the safety protocols zoos and aquariums put into place before an animal and its keeper even meet. Animals are basically separated into "fight" animals or "flight" animals. The "fight animals" (bears, most big cats, etc.) are hard-wired to stand their ground when threatened, while the "flight animals" (most hoofstock, wolves, raptors, etc.) have evolved to flee. In most zoos, keepers use "protected contact" while dealing with fight animals--and even some flight animals. This means all training must be done through some kind of barrier--like a fence or bars. This prevents most dangerous incidents from occurring. Injuries can occur even when working with flight animals, of course, so keepers must always be alert, and we must learn to "read" our animals before training can occur. If an animal seems "off" for some reason, we must trust our gut and put our personal safety first--even if it means temporarily missing a training session. (In the event we do get injured, 95% of the time it's because of an error on OUR part--not paying attention, not reading our animals correctly, being distracted, etc.) Here are my personal claims to fame: I have been bitten by a raccoon (twice!), bitten by a bottlenose dolphin, footed by a great horned owl, cornered by a Bactrian camel and stabbed in the arm by a mountain goat. (Every time, the injury was my fault!)

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 5 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.

This is gonna sound cold, but why do people freak out so much about endangered species? I mean, if it's an animal that's absolutely critical to the environment, I guess I understand, but would we really be worse off without pandas, for example?

Asked by Sully almost 5 years ago

Definitely a valid question, and one I'm sure others wonder about as well. I think the answer depends on your personal definition of the phrase "worse off." From a strictly evolutionary perspective, species like pandas, tigers and polar bears wouldn't have survived this long if they didn't serve a purpose in their environment. Many are indicator species and apex predators, so the health of their entire ecosystem is often mirrored by their personal health. (For example, the loss of polar bears in the Arctic wouldn't just affect polar bears. It would affect arctic foxes, seabirds, walruses, seals, fish, krill, plankton, plant life, etc. If you remove one link in the chain, the entire chain is altered.) That being said, is the entire Chinese ecosystem going to fall apart if pandas are removed from it? No. Probably not. In many cases, humans have altered the environment so drastically that many endangered animals are no longer capable of even surviving in it. So, one could argue that the loss of certain species is just a byproduct of our quickly advancing society. Progress is progress, and sacrifices must be made. This is certainly a valid argument, and I understand why some people feel this way. My personal opinion, though, is that some things have an intrinsic value that can't so easily be quantified. I believe humans--as this planet's apex species--have a certain responsibility to look out for other species. We must particularly protect those species whose survival has been directly threatened by our own personal advancement. Perhaps the responsibility is empathetic; perhaps it is philosophical or ideological. Regardless, I often think of Lyndon B. Johnson's quote: "If future generations are to remember us with more gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just miracles of technology. We must also leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it."

When you get an exotic new animal, how do you know it will tolerate the food you feed it? Do you have to import food from its native habitat too?

Asked by zazreal about 5 years ago

Hi Zazreal! The great things about zoos and aquariums is that they often work together to ensure their animals receive the very best nutrition possible. In addition to consulting on-site veterinarians, they work together to find out which foods are working best at other facilities. Native food is brought in whenever possible. When it is unavailable--like in the case of polar bears, who primarily eat seals--its nutritional makeup is replicated through supplements and science. Zookeepers also work with the preferences of their individual animals, and they do their best to provide "favorites" whenever possible.

Why can't cats be trained to sit, stay, or heel like dogs can?

Asked by luke about 5 years ago

Great question, Luke! Cats are often much more difficult to train than dogs, and the reason makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Cats have evolved to be mostly solitary hunters, so they are much more self-sufficient and independent than pack animals like dogs and wolves. Dogs are already hard-wired to respond to social cues from their pack mates, so this behavior is easily redirected into training sessions. (And nowadays, we just happen to be their pack mates!)

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

Asked by luke almost 5 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.

Would a lion or tiger born and raised in a zoo ever survive and live a full-term life if just released into the wild?

Asked by bunny about 5 years ago

Hi Bunny! Unfortunately, the answer is most often no. There is always a chance--because the will to live is a powerful one--but survival is difficult enough for an animal that was born and raised in the wild. Consider a civilized human--even a really fit marathon-type of human--and imagine what would happen if you dropped him in the middle of a rainforest. His strength and will and determination would be there, but he would struggle with basic things like knowing what is safe to eat and how to find water and shelter. Now consider a lion that has been hand-raised in a zoo. Not only does he lack basic hunting skills, but he also isn't used to predators or the incredibly complicated way other lions maintain their social order. Most dangerously for him, he also believes humans are his friends. (He even believes that's where his food comes from!) So, there's always a chance. But more often than not, the ending to the story is a sad one.