Sunday, June 14, 2015

27 Zoo Secrets You Apparently Didn't Know About

Who out there has read the recent Ranker "article", 27 Secrets Zoos Don't Want You To Know?  I know, I totally just linked to it, and I totally think you should read it if you haven't because I mean, there are secrets contained in there.  Don't you want to know what they are?  Especially if you work at a zoo or aquarium, you should probably be up in arms about the fact that some well-meaning whistleblower has decided to EXPOSE OUR SECRETS.


Before I read the article, I was utterly shocked.  How could a LAYMEN discover these secrets?  Did they know someone On The Inside?  And now, all of us animal care professionals (the zookeepers, the animal trainers, veterinarians, educators) should shake in our boots.  Like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange*, the author of this Ranker post systematically rips the shroud of secrecy off of our field and into the bright, unblinking spotlight of the Court of Public Opinion.  

But, SPOILER ALERT!  All zookeepers can breathe a collective sigh of relief.  Because when I actually read the article, I found two things:

1) All of our secrets are safe.  

2) The so-called "secrets" the author discusses are just complete lies, or are exaggerated claims based off of one random event. 

My initial reaction was laughter.  But I felt a little badly for laughing at this person's efforts, since it employed serious Google searching and propaganda techniques that are reserved for the Experts, such as Kim Jong Un.**  Clearly, the author of said article spent tens of minutes vetting all of the evidence presented as Internet Fact.

Good question, Kim.

Because of my guilt for LOLing at the inaneness of this "author's" efforts, I've decided I'm going to expose actual secrets of zoos and aquariums.  These are the secrets that I expected (and dreaded) seeing.  So I'm sorry for any embarrassment or anger I incite in you, loyal readers. But it's better for us to be totally transparent.

Without further ado, here are 27 Actual, True, Very Real Zoo Secrets:

1. We Eat A Lot Of Junk Food
Serving Size: 1 (for a Zookeeper or Marine Mammal Trainer)
And we try to hide it.  Yes.  We pretend we only took one donut.  But we really took three.  And a half.  Well, technically four.  Because you know, there was that one glazed donut left in the box at the end of the day.

2. We Are Unsettlingly Obsessed With Nicely Coiled Hoses

This is almost as good as the donut photo above.
Whether you're dealing with a terrestrial or an aquatic animal caretaker, we spend a lot of time with our hoses and want them to feel loved and respected.

3. There Is No Such Thing As A Rich Zookeeper

After exploiting the animals, I like to take night cruises on my super yacht.
Seriously.  Like, where is all this money the zoo industry is allegedly making going?  Because it's sure not going to my bank account. #thankgodforBOGOpastasales

4. Sometimes We Get Free Food From Concessions

OMG Aren't these just the BEST?
Too many french fries made for the day?  Too many pretzels warmed up?  Ran out of room in the freezer for ice cream treats?  BOOM, zookeepers and marine mammal trainers win.  Concessions managers can really make us happy after a long day.  But shhh, don't tell anyone.

5. We Get As Excited About Animal Births As We Do Human Births

Don't judge
Yeah yeah yeah, the miracle of human life or whatever, but have you SEEN a dolphin be born?  Animal babies are awesome, and seeing them grow and develop is just as much fun as watching your own kid go through it.

6. We Like The Smell Of Some Poop

Yeah? So?
Not that we're going to smear it in our hair or anything, but most of the poop produced by the animals we know and love really doesn't gross us out.  In fact, some of it is like, okay.  I AM NOT ASHAMED.

7. We Cannot Hold A Conversation Outside of the Zoo Field That Does Not Involve Animals

Socially Awkward Penguin is cared for by Socially Awkward Zookeepers (which is every last one of us)
We may be fantastically eloquent public speakers, but we cannot hold a conversation with normal people without talking about work.  

8. Algae Is The Arch Nemesis Of All Zoos

Ender's Game doesn't have a thing on the type of battle we face with algae.  It grows everywhere.  It doesn't care.  It doesn't follow Biological Rules.  It just grows, and grows back, and gives the impression your habitats are "dirty" to guests who don't know any better because they don't realize algae is the "beautiful seaweed" they enjoy seeing in the ocean or a lake.  And yet, we scrub and scrub and scrub fence lines, habitats, sidewalks.  And our little protist friends laugh at us and make us feel completely insignificant.  But I'm not bitter or anything.

9. Zoos Purchase A Lot of Lubricant

Not pictured: 100 additional bottles
Ultrasounds.  Gastric tubes.  Thermometers.  There are a lot of pieces of vet equipment that require the use of lubricant.  Now don't get all skeeved out.  For example, the thermometer probe we use at my place of employment for the dolphins is about as thin as a piece of string.  But still, we lube it up because we want to be 100% sure it's not uncomfortable.  If you're going to be weirded out at anything, think about how it feels to walk into Walgreens and buy 15 bottles of KY jelly and then that pack of M&Ms that's on sale at the counter.

10. We Have A Lot of Nightmares About Locks

All animal care professionals worry that they didn't lock up the night house, or the back door to the employee parking lot.

11. We Will Trade Our First Born Child For A Pair of Good Work Shoes

Do they chafe? Do they smell after a few uses? Do they hurt my lower back? No?  Okay, deal.

12. Overall, The Animals In Our Care Live Longer Than Their Wild Counterparts

We wants to tell you a secret
I didn't think this was a secret, but apparently according to some naysayers they claim that many of the animals in our care don't live very long.  Um, well, okay, so that must be a secret to the general public?  So here's the truth: they live as long or longer than their wild counterparts for the most part.  Glad to have cleared that up.

13. We Know Guests Aren't "Really Leaving Town Tomorrow"

Oh for the love of Pete (yes please)
Okay, we know our guests lie to us sometimes.  When they are unhappy that we can't squeeze them into an encounter program because we don't want to overwork the animals, and they say, "BUT WE ARE LEAVING TOMORROW!!!!!".  Sorry, we have Liar Guest Radar.  And now you know our secret.

14. We Wash Our Hands Before Going To The Bathroom

It's just better to sandwich the hand washing in this scenario.  Wash your hands, evacuate, wash your hands again.

15. Zoos and Aquariums Have Really, Really High Overhead Costs

How we pay the electric bill
Here's a fun game: what do YOU think our electric bill is?  Our water bill? Gas?  How about cost of food?  Veterinary bills?  Zoos and aquariums don't just Pintrest their exhibit construction and fill it with some sticks, leaves, and tap water and plop animals in there.  Also, we don't have any secret renewable energy source to like, flush the toilets or keep the lights on.  The secret is, we owe a LOT of money to a LOT of businesses at the end of every month.

16. We All Have That One Job We Hate

The worst
Me? I'm not a huge fan of some of the clerical work I have to do as a supervisor.

17. We Get Really Sad When Guests Don't See How Awesome Our Animals Are

Which sucks if your're a saiga antelope, because they could use just half of the publicity that killer whales are getting right now.  
It's true.  There are the handful of recognizable animals at zoos and aquariums, but a lot of the other critters are not ones that guests tend to really care about....until we show them how amazing they are.  Still, we are still met with, "Well they are boring/gross" or "yeah but where are the orcas?"

18. We Have A Favorite Animal Or Two

What who said that?
We love all of the animals equally.  But there are always a few we just seem to groove better with.

19. We Have A Lot Of Embarrassing Photos On Our Phones

If only it was this cute IRL
Photos of poop.  Close up pictures of moles.  We've got a lot of weird photos on our phones of our animals' leavings and other fun things that we've sent to vets and curators.  But hey, it guarantees instant karmic punishment to anyone who happens to steal our phones and goes through our photos.  Beware.

20. We Rely Heavily On Revenue To Pay Our Bills

Please sir!
That high overhead?  Yeah, that's why we charge $12 for a 5x7 photo of your giraffe encounter.  Not because it goes to the Rolls Royce no zookeeper (or zoo CEO for that matter) will ever have, but because we need to pay those insanely high overhead costs.  Amazing how it works: make money to keep the animals cared for.

21. Most Zoo and Aquarium Guests Have Zero Experience With Any Of The Animals They're Seeing

Most people have not seen a wild California sea lion

Fact: the vast majority of zoo/aquarium patrons have never seen the vast majority of the animals at that facility in the wild.  

22. We Expect Long Lives From The Animals We Know and Love

My mom and I with Nellie and Lily.  Nellie was 61 when she passed away, and Lily was in her 50s.
We take great care of the animals we are honored to know and love.  Like you expect your dog or cat to live a long, healthy life, that's what we expect with the animals under our care, too.  Not to live to half their lifespan...but we strive for and expect it to reach it and beyond.

23. We Spend More Time At Work Than With Our Non-Work Families work in a zoo or aquarium.
'Nuff said

24. We Don't Even Try To Keep Our Cars Clean

Why bother?  We clean all day, we don't have the energy to clean off the clock.  Plus, ain't never going to get the sand out of the car.  Just embrace it and let it build up.

25. We Keep A Log Of Silly Things Guests Say

Not ashamed.

26. The Animals Eat Better Than We Do

This photo is straight from the Ranker blog
Fresh browse, produce, meat.  Restaurant-quality frozen meat and fish.  Our animals get top-notch food.  And we the animal caretakers eat surplus Super Pretzels that are 8 hours old from the snack bar.

27. We Lose Life-Threatening Amounts Of Blood To Flying Insects

Deer flies.  Mosquitoes.  Noseeums.  They feast upon our flesh and blood with wild abandon.  And we maintain our sanity and blood volume, somehow.

It's no secret that the animals we care for receive vitamins and supplements, and if necessary, medications***.  It's no secret that zoos reach millions of people each year, and inspire countless people to care about animals and the environments they live in.  Are there places that call themselves a "zoo" but are god-awful?  Yep.  Just like there are bad dentists, schools, and bakeries.  But those are the minority.  Our Industry Secrets are truly as benign as I've written here.  And there are more to be sure.  But the way we care for the animals, how many people we reach, and how the animals actually live in quality zoos and aquariums is never, nor will it ever be, a secret.
* If you don't know who these people are, shame shame.

** Whose father, by the way, invented the hamburger.  Also, North Korea is responsible for feeding all starving Americans.  

*** Like antibiotics or medications that support problems typically related with old age, or pain support (especially, again for our older animals with aging joints).  Not anti-"zoochosis" drugs (who makes this stuff up?)


  1. Great list - and so true! However, I did read the other list and not everything on there is completely false, either, and they are things of which people need to be made aware. There are fantastic zoos and sanctuaries out there - all the ones for whom I have ever worked - that are doing the absolute best they can in terms of animal care and conservation. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of "sanctuaries" which are nothing more than archaic money-grubbing animal prisons. There are also some well meaning zoos and sanctuaries who are lacking the funding or who are still renovating from a time when zoo animals were little more than entertainment where some negative things, unfortunately, do still happen.

    Zoochosis is also a real thing, particularly in primates. Sometimes even in the best of conditions, even when given extensive space enrichment, captive animals can get depressed. Obviously the good zoos and sanctuaries do everything in their power to prevent this, but particularly for those zoos that are underfunded or in the process of renovation it's not always 100% possible to prevent. For some animals, captivity is like living like a king, for others, even the most elaborate enclosure is still no comparison for their natural habitat. We all know that, and it shouldn't be denied. We also know, however, that in many cases the reason that these animals are in captivity is because the political or social environment of their native habitat is not supportive to their population growth. At zoos, we believe that it is better to keep some animals in a less than ideal situation (captivity) in the hopes that we can prevent extinction, and someday eliminate any need for captivity.

    The other points I won't go into detail on, but I think the article is important for people to see. Some of the "secrets" are examples of bad zoos, not good ones, and some of them happen even in good zoos but not because the zoos aren't taking excellent care of their animals. Elephants do live longer in the wild, unfortunately, or at least they would if not for poaching. However, again, seeing as poaching is the main threat to their population, it is currently necessary to keep them in captivity. Captive animals do show stress behaviors, which can be decreased and managed through enrichment and proper environment. Some animals, particularly addax, fallow deer, and other hoofstock, do end up on hunting ranches; however, those hunting ranches (mostly in Texas) are generally putting at least some of their profit towards conservation. It's also in part because of those hunting ranches that we have a healthy, viable population of species that are currently critically endangered or extinct in the wild. Obesity is a huge problem in some zoos, one that can be treated through proper diet management and natural enrichment to encourage instinctive behaviors. Small enclosures are generally not healthy for animals, particularly hoofstock, which is why zoos like Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, The Wilds, San Diego Safari Park, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, Smithsonian, and White Oak all provide a more natural environment for their animals complete with large amounts of acreage and natural herd sizes.

    I don't agree with the overall tone of the other article, but for the most part their points are not untrue - they just weren't explain properly. I don't believe that zoos and aquariums should keep people in the dark about the negative aspects of wild animals in captivity, it only makes people more suspicious as to why we were hiding these things when they do find out. Instead, we should let people know that, yes, we know that a captive environment is not ideal - but here's what we do to help make it as close to ideal as possible.

    1. The zoochosis thing: I don`t know about you, but we don't give drugs for that, and I don't know of any zoo that does. The trick is enrichment. It's the most fun thing ever for the zookeepers AND animals. None of the animals in our zoo get drugs because they're bored, we never let it get that far. We have exactly one animal (a tiger) that is in a bad mindset, but she came to us already like that and we are trying very hard to stimulate her and do some fun activities with her. If a zoo knows what the heck they're doing, they should be doing lots of enrichment and their animals should never even have the chance to go into zoochosis.

  2. I agree with many of the points in the comment posted above, but have to say overall I adore this article and agree that it reflects the values, priorities, and heart our staff demonstrate every day caring for our animals. If we did not have a sense of humor about what we do we could not last long doing it.

  3. I read the other article and laughed too. Seems this person is talking about zoos in some awful country, like China where they eat their own pets. Basically none of this stuff is true of Canada, that`s for sure.

  4. fulltimewhalenerdJune 18, 2015 at 5:37 PM

    Good read! That's not surprising, though, considering that all of your posts are "good reads" :)

    Silly things guests say. . . like, back when the Commerson's were on exhibit at SWC, I overheard people saying they were "Baby Shamus"? Ugh.

    I also agree with Nicole's comment, especially the last paragraph.

    Keep up the great work, Cat!