Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Stressors Of Being A Zookeeper

The other day, I saw a blog article headline saying that people in the food service industry experience more workplace stress than a neurosurgeon.

I chose not to read the article, mostly because I have had zero experience in either industry and cannot accurately convey their corresponding stress levels.  However, it did get me thinking about the various things that really stress us animal care professionals out.

"Jedi" is also a stressful occupation

Obviously, any time we are dealing with a sick/injured critter or one who has passed away, that causes an incredible amount of sadness, fear, and anxiety.  I'm not going to compare our profession's emotional drainage to that of any others', but it really does require every last drop of your emotional resources.

Other than the very serious things that, hopefully, don't happen very often (side note: let's just nod to the people who work in rehab, because they see some pretty heartbreaking stuff in much higher proportion), there are a few other situations that completely zap our brains.  Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Records

Uh, who did I have at the 10:30 training session??

We all know the look.  You know, the one where a fellow zookeeper is sitting in a chair either with a pile of records in their lap, or gazing into a bright computer screen.  You know your colleague is technically awake (their eyes are open), but they are not actually conscious of the moment.  You could probably perform quadruple bypass surgery on this person without their knowing it.   What causes such a deep, meditative trance?


Especially when it comes to animal training, record keeping is the Great Mind Erasure of the zoological world.  If you aren't lucky enough to keep up with your records of food amounts, session types, and who interacted with whom, you know the feeling of dread when you stare at a pile of empty spaces, knowing hours and hours of data has not been recorded.  Making the decision to be The One to catch up logs is on par with other fun tasks, such as doing your own taxes.


The PRESSURE to do these records is intense, too.  They have inherent value; it's imperative to know how much each animal is eating and what their behavior was like during the day.  It's also a great way to maintain basic communication between all animal care staff in that department, so they can easily look back at a record and see what was going on.  And at least for marine mammal facilities in the United States, it's a legal requirement to maintain records without fail; every session, every fish fed, every vitamin given, every single day.  You can't (and shouldn't) just make something up. 

Blank records are probably the easiest way to stun an animal trainer.  Like, if I'm about to eat the last slice of cookie cake, just shove a bunch of completely behind behavioral logs into my face.  It'll render me completely useless for at least half an hour.

2. Change in Schedules

Spring Break schedule got me like....

Every zoo or aquarium animal department has its own way of running the day.  Some places are really, really structured, whereas others are not.  But there is always at least a general idea of what needs to happen when, especially when it comes to feeding, enrichment, and training schedules. 

Zookeepers live and die by this schedule, no matter what personality type they are.  You know when the keeper chats/presentations/shows are.  You probably know how long it takes you to clean each habitat in order to be on time for whatever else is on your agenda.  Time management is an essential skill in this job.

So when the schedule changes for seasonal, animal health, or Murphy's Law reasons, we are all a hot mess.  This includes getting called in on your day off, not because you hate working with animals for a bonus day, but because you often come in at a weird time and have to figure out what's going on, what the vibe of the day is, etc.  And usually, these days are considered a Total Loss for record-keeping.  

Zookeepers with a screwed up schedule are basically like flies with one wing pulled off.  No matter how hard you try to right yourself, it'll never happen.  Just put your head down, know that as long as the earth is spinning that time will march forwards and at some point, you'll be at home, lying on your couch eating an entire large pizza watching staring into space as your brain attempts to function once again.

3. After Vacation

Even Gandalf has no clue

Coming back into this job after an extended period of time off is hard.  Harder than just the normal, "Ohhhh I had so much fun on vacation, I wish it lasted foreverrrrrr" thing.  It is an extension of the aforementioned stress-factor.  Time moves differently in a zoo or aquarium; being gone for a week means at least 7 months of stuff has happened in that time.  

Me: Okay, catch me up.  What's new?

Coworker: Not too much this past week, except that the dolphins forgot how to do bows, we can't give them basketballs unsupervised anymore because they were stuffing them into pipes, Charlie hit himself in the face with a flat of herring and broke his nose, and Wanda won the lottery and moved to Santa Monica.  Also, none of the toilets are working so we've been wearing diapers all day.

4. Guest Tedium

Nap time should be part of our workday

Those of us who interact with guests routinely know the Brain Drain that occurs when you have disproportionate time talking to visitors and time to do other things that don't involve speaking.  We work hard to make sure our animal friends have variety in their day and we limit how much time they interact with or can be viewed by guests.  But some of us don't do our own coworkers that favor.

Being in the zoological field means you talk to people; it's the reason why we are here in the first place.  And I actually love talking to visitors, narrating shows and doing animal interactions.  But it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of emotional energy.  You can't have a Bad Day when you're dealing with the public.  You have to keep track of many, many different things when you're conducting animal interactions.  You need time to decompress from that.

Having a rude or upset guest, or repeating the same information for many hours at a time can completely destroy your mental processes.  The only cure involves junk food and lots of favorite-show-binge-watching.  But it's probably best that we try to keep our own guest interaction experience evened-out with our coworkers.

5. The Pet Peeve Miscellany

Intergalactic peeve

Then there are those little pet peeves, often unique to individuals. These are basically Icing On The Cake stressors, because usually these things won't drive you crazy.  But add on the heaps of stuff you have to deal with in a day, and you're ready to Donkey Kong punch someone into outer space because they put your socks in the wrong place. 

For me, it makes me bonkers to my shorts wet.  I don't know why, because I don't mind getting wet.  And it's not just like, khaki shorts.  I'm talking about board shorts, or something similar that is intended to get wet.  The feeling of that wet fabric against my skin just really creeps me out.  Working alongside dolphins, you can imagine I'm often confronted with this irksome scenario.  My level of vexation skyrockets when I'm under a lot of stress, but is often resolved by staring at a picture of Charlie Hunnam for no less than 90 seconds.


Our job is emotionally expensive, and we all want to give our all so that the animals we care for have the best lives possible.  We want to go out of our way for guests to ensure that they leave our zoo or aquarium excited to help animals in their own backyard (and beyond).  An outsider thinks all we do is play with animals all day, but we know how much work it takes to do our job well.  It's important to find ways of decompressing, ways of disconnecting so you can recharge and come back the next day ready to rock.  Or, at the very least, don't judge yourself (or your coworkers) for finding a quiet moment to zone out, even if it's when they're supposed to be filling in records.


  1. Sorry to go anon here. I have none "comment as" selections. I agree with you wholeheartedly here, I am a zoo worker myself. Makes me giggle though that the start of this was the food service industry people have it worse than neurosurgeons, apparently. And then your bit here about being a zookeeper, and all I can think of is my job. I am the food industry of a zoo. Animal nutrition. I have the worst of both worlds I guess. :)

  2. loving this. your post made my day. that's really cool, mingling with animals. i love reading people real experience. actually, i'm currently proposing a research proposal relating to zookeepers and stress :)