Sunday, March 8, 2015

Scary Stories to Tell A Zookeeper (Part One)

The other day on the Facebook group Zookreepers, I saw a post about one particular thing that scares most people in the animal care profession.  But let me just tell you, there's more than one of those scary worries in our professional lives.

Everyone's got fears.  I'm not just talking about the normal, rational life fears.  You know, like Money, Career, or worse, Mealworms*.

Well this little guy may disagree with me on that last point.

But all of us probably have some Irrational Fears that shake us to our core.  And I'm here to tell you all about the Irrational Fears of Zookeeping.

Yes, even people who work with potentially dangerous animals like venomous snakes, really really big animals or super predators have fears that go beyond the rational.  We may have nerves of steel when it comes to a male sea lion throwing a temper tantrum, but we wake up in a cold sweat at 2am thinking about a cockroach crawling out of our wetsuit sleeve.

So take a journey with me, down a dark alleyway filled with all of your favorite fears!  Read on only if you dare....

Actually, I think I'll skip the walk down this thing

1. Eeeeek! Cockroaches!

Sorry Wall-E, you picked the wrong friend.

It wasn't enough that the weather was bitterly cold and the show schedule packed.  You had forgotten to hang your wetsuit with enough time to dry after its last washing.  Now, you stand in disbelief at the neoprene uniform you need to don.  Your skin crawls with the idea of the damp, cold material touching every bare inch of your skin.  You will never be warm.

PSA: If the trees look like this, make sure you have a dry wetsuit

Still, ever the professional, you pull the wetsuit from its hanger and felt the sickening moisture chill your already frigid skin.  You slip one leg in, then the other, pulling the body of the suit up and over your torso until you could fit your arms into the sleeves.  You grimace, willing time to move faster until the point at which you're happily in the water with the dolphins, knowing that they'll distract you from the biting cold.

At long last, you shimmy the wetsuit to its final position and zip yourself up.  You take a deep breath, knowing what pain awaits you in the freezing wind outside.  And then -

That feeling.  That scratching, erratic touch that itches your armpit in a way that instantly turns your spine to jello.  The hopeless panic that envelopes your brain as it attempts to identify the six-legged dance occurring on your skin.  You rip the zipper down and tear your wetsuit off, frantically wiping away that horrible, pin prickly feeling of an insect trying to find purchase on your body.  


Your hand hits the waxy carapace of the cockroach and it is knocked to the floor.  Having nowhere else to go, it instinctively heads to the darkest, safest place: your wetsuit.  Your legs are still trapped in a jumble of neoprene mess from your quick attempt to escape the roach's attack.  But your primal brain has taken over now, screaming at you to get away from confounded vermin.  Your legs are trapped, you cannot run, you cannot hide, you cannot crawl on top of that bench in the locker room.  You are stuck, you and the roach, in a soggy tangle of wetsuit and sheer panic.  

2. The Brain That Could Not Remember (If That Gate Was Locked)

The Gate.  It calls to all creatures.

The Gate was a Gate That Must Always Be Locked.  It was driven into my head since my first day on the job.  Gate must be respected.  Gate must be honored without fail.  If Gate is not cared for properly, Gate will allow the most Terrible things to happen.  The animals may get out.  Park guests may get in.  And Gate would sit in judgment.

And so I learned to obey the Gate.  I unlocked it when I needed to enter the habitat.  I locked it behind me.  That wasn't ever the issue.  It was the exit that haunted my dreams.  As if traversing through the threshold of the Gate momentarily erased my memory.  As though the Gate needed a blank mind in order to communicate to me in the wee hours of the night, "Cat, did you remember to lock me?"

They had a great Gate.

At first I thought I was going crazy.  I'd exit the animal habitat, turn around and lock the gate.  A few seconds later, as I walked away, the sudden thought entered my mind:

"Did you lock the gate?"

So I'd turn around and double-check it.  Yes, of course Gate was locked.  Satisfied, I'd continue on my day.  

But it got progressively worse.  What started as a brief lapse in memory turned into a Superstitious Lock Checking.  Minutes would pass since my encounter with Gate, and that voice would speak to me.

"Did you lock the gate?"

Surely, this is just my high-strung personality tormenting me, I thought.  Surely, no one else has this problem.  I kept my worry to myself while I returned to Gate, checked its lock, and repeated the process indefinitely throughout the days, weeks.

And now, long after I arrive home from work, when I am lying in my bed or drifting off to sleep, I receive messages from Gate.  

"DID YOU LOCK THE GATE?"  I bolt awake, seeing the Gate in my mind's eye, open and swaying in the dark night, beckoning me to check.  Oh GOD, I think.  DID I lock it?? DID I triple check? WHY CAN'T I REMEMBER?  SHOULD I GO BACK INTO WORK AT 3AM TO MAKE SURE?  WHAT IF ALL THE ANIMALS ARE RUNNING AROUND??????  HOW WILL I EVER KNOW? 

Otter despair!

3. STUCK! A Story of Fish Freezer Entrapment!

The sum of all zookeepers' fears

The sound of a door slamming following quickly after the light vanished.  He froze in place, a box of squid in his hands.

"I can't see anything," he thought.  He turned around, his hands and arms burning from the cold of the frozen box he carried.  But he was enveloped in pitch dark every way he turned.

The freezer was a frigid -20 degrees Fahrenheit.  He was only in his wind pants and t-shirt; he hadn't planned on being in there for very long.  What, for one box of squid?  But the sub-zero temperature made quick work of his lean body, and it wasn't long before he started to shiver.

But then! A soft, green glowing orb caught his eye in the darkness.  The doorknob! Relief washed over him, almost as satisfying as warmth.  He slowly walked towards the light source, silently thanking the inventor of such a safety device and careful not to trip over any of the pallets laid about the place with its towering fish stacks.  Sure, he bumped into a few, but he didn't mind the brief discomfort.  He knew his way out.

The pain in his hands was almost unbearable as he reached the door.  He turned his back to the glowing knob, prepared himself, and slammed his hip into it.  The action should pop the door right open.  BAM! 

But the door did not budge.  

These raptors also had a fear of the freezer, but it was slightly more understandable than ours.

He shifted the box of squid in his arms and prepared for another attempt.  He reared back, aimed his body, and WHAM! Knocked the knob squarely and true.  But again the door did not move.

The small voice of infant panic began to cry softly in the back of his mind.  He freed one of his hands, clutching the box to his shaking body as he searched the wall by the door for the light switch.  He flicked it on.  The light flickered briefly, casting a sickening and pulsing yellow tone to the room before it finally went out.  

"No, no no no no," he said.  He flicked the light switch off and on, off and on.  But it was as unresponsive as the door.

He dropped the box of squid, fear completely taking over his body and mind.  He moved back to the glowing green door knob and hit it with his palms, with his shoulder, with his hips and feet.  He kicked and clawed and shoulder-checked.  He cried out into the darkness, but there was no one to hear him.
Ohhh say no more!

Is that the end of our terrifying tales from beyond the Zoo?  No, of course not!  There are plenty more, but let that slake your curiosity, dear readers.  But feel free to share your irrational fears.  Let's combat this mental plague together!

Still to come in parts 2 and 3:

"The Mysteriously Missing Tiny Item"

"Ghosts Of The Night Obs"

"The Tale of the IMATA/AZA Presentation"

"The Chilling and Unwavering Gaze of Visiting Colleagues"

"The Haunted Garbage Disposal"

* Those things are SCARY


  1. # 3 totally happened to me a few days ago. I felt like I was in Final Destination haha!

  2. I have known many who came back at 03.00 in the morning to check whether they had shut a included. I actually had a girl resign because it became too much of a worry to her. It haunted her every night.

  3. But really, that locked gate nightmare occurs everywhere for me.
    "Did I in fact close AND LOCK the door to the mews??" I start to sweat standing in line for a smoothie at McDonalds.
    "Was that gate to the main aviary actually shut, or slightly propped open? Will I return to a hallway full of lorikeets again?!" I think as I begin to hyperventilate in the middle of a staff meeting.

  4. As an aquarist...did I close those taps?! Did I? Did I finish the refilling of the salt mixer pool? Etc... Few times I went back to check in the evening, I couldnt sleep while I wasnt sure:D