Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer


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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141 Questions


Last Answer on September 18, 2015

Best Rated

Do zoos WANT the animals to mate with each other, or only when there's concern about dwindling populations of a species?

Asked by julia almost 6 years ago

Hi Julia! Great question... This DEFINITELY depends on the species of the animal. For obvious reasons, zoos place more emphasis on rare and endangered species, but offspring are sometimes welcome for other species as well. Child-rearing is great behavioral enrichment for many social animals, and it strengthens group bonds as well. The question zoos always have to ask is, "Would a newborn take away resources that could be used for an orphaned or injured animal instead?" I worked at a zoo in Alaska that rescued many animals--including black bears, brown bears, moose and red foxes. We NEVER bred these animals internally, because every newborn would have taken up space that could have been used by a wild animal-in-need instead. (We did, however, have breeding plans for some of our other animals, including our Bactrian camels. Since these animals are already domestic, there's no fear of one turning up orphaned or injured nearby.) Hope this is helpful!

I know pandas are ordinarily solitary creatures, but is there a specific term for a "group" of pandas?

Asked by Stephanie almost 6 years ago

Hi Stephanie! As far as I know, there is no "official" term for a group of pandas, since they are seen together so infrequently. Unofficially, I believe a group is called a "sleuth" or a "sloth," since that's the technical term for a group of bears. (Random, right? Here's a great link from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center that lists other bizarre animal groups: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/about/faqs/animals/names.htm Some of my favorites: A group of porcupines is a "prickle," a group of finches is a "charm," and a group of sharks is a "shiver." Who knew?)

How many animals are there in a typical zoo, and how many people are needed to take care of a zoo this size?

Asked by Royce almost 6 years ago

I wish there were a simple answer for this question, but there is so much variation between zoos that it's nearly impossible to make a generalization. In terms of staffing, it is also important to take into account what kind of animals each facility has. (Two elephants require way more trainers than 10 turtles, for instance.) Off the top of my head, I know that the San Diego Zoo (a very big and impressive facility) has more than 4,000 animals, but the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has more than 32,500. Many of the Aquarium's animals are tiny invertebrates and fish, so the number doesn't tell you nearly as much as you would initially think. Using specific examples from my background, I have independently cared for about 25 animals during one shift. Some of these animals were small and easy like baby quails, but some were big and high-maintenance like eagles. I worked in another facility where 15-17 dolphins were taken care of by 6-9 trainers, so staffing definitely depends on the specific animal species. It also depends on each zoo's vision and approach to behavioral enrichment and training. (The more staff we have on hand, the more time we can dedicate to the "fun stuff" like making enrichment for our animals and leading training sessions!)

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 6 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."

Haha, really interesting about the walrus training. Can ANY walrus be trained like that, or is that one especially intelligent? How about other animals; can pretty much any species be trained to perform a routine?

Asked by coryschneider almost 6 years ago

Glad you enjoyed it! Theoretically, any walrus could be trained like that. However--just like some people enjoy the spotlight while others shy away from it--it often depends on the individual animal. First and foremost, keepers train their animals for practical "husbandry" or medical behaviors--like shifting in and out of pens so we can clean, presenting their paws and teeth so we can check for injuries, presenting their shoulders for injections, etc. Once our animals have those behaviors mastered, we begin to shift our focus. If an animal seems to enjoy our training sessions, we often continue with other behaviors to keep the animal's environment dynamic and enriching. If the animal doesn't, we often leave them mostly to their own devices. If an animal REALLY seems to respond to our training sessions, we sometimes make the decision to train that animal for a show or presentation. It certainly takes a special animal to thrive in a public venue like a stadium--just like it takes a special keeper to thrive in that environment as well. As far as your species question, it depends. Animals with higher relative intelligence often respond more quickly than other animals, but that's not always the case. Generally speaking, it is also easier to train aggressive animals than it is to train shy animals, because aggressive animals are already hard-wired to approach us. It is fairly easy for us to redirect their energy once they do, but it is difficult to overcome the barrier of an animal that is hard-wired to run away from us. It takes a lot of initial training just to get them to feel comfortable being near us.

Why are wolves so vicious but dogs are so docile? Aren't they pretty closely related?

Asked by circle gets the square almost 6 years ago

The answer lies in the domestication process that transformed gray wolves into dogs. This process began between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, when early man began interacting with and taming wild wolves. Not all wolves were suited for this, so only the most "sociable" and "approachable" animals were tamed. These wolves bred with other "man-friendly" wolves, and their offspring grew up even more comfortable around man. As each generation passed, the fear of man gradually left these wolves. And as each generation passed, the wolves' anatomy and physiology began changing. Humans who wanted strong animals to pull their sleds selectively bred their strongest animals together. Humans who wanted fast animals to help them hunt selectively bred their fastest animals together. Eventually, the wolves had changed so much that they weren't even really wolves anymore. That's when they first became dogs. (And that's why there's so much variation between breeds today!) To answer your question, I would argue that wolves aren't actually "vicious" creatures; they are just wild animals that are guided by instinct and strength and prowess. Their natural fear of man is what makes them appear vicious to us. Dogs, on the other hand, have been bred and raised among humans for so long that they view our relationship with them as natural. Their instinct to fear us has been absent for many thousands of years, so they are born with a clean slate against us. It is up to us to ensure we live up to their trust.

Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 almost 6 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?