Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Unofficial Hierarchy of Animals

Okay can we all just admit that dolphins are NOT the be-all, end-all of the zoo field?  Or the animal kingdom, for that matter?  Don’t get me wrong, dolphins are one of my favorite animals.  I think they’re amazing, but I think we all get a little carried away with how great dolphins are when compared to other animals.  

I LOVE dolphins, but there are a lot of other super awesome animals out there, too!

I have two thoughts about this topic.

1. There is an unofficial hierarchy of alleged-awesomeness when it comes to working with animals in terms of species or families. 

Take that sticker off, Western lowland gorilla!

Tier One animals invoke a swooning and/or deeply jealous reaction from anyone to whom you’ve shared your profession.  Animals like dolphins (including killer whales, they are like Tier One Platinum), elephants, tigers, lions, cheetahs, gorillas, chimpanzees, and maybe maybe maybe wolves.  That’s pretty much it.  


Tier Two animals invoke an interested but definitely tempered reaction. Most people dig them (they may still represent someone’s favorite critter) but generally you don’t really get the WOW factor.  Species include penguins, baboons, orangutans, all tiny species of monkey, otters, the less-popular big cats like mountain lions, bears, American alligators, Nile crocodiles, sea turtles, sharks, pandas, pinnipeds, kangaroos, koalas, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches, most species of parrots, etc.

I disagree!

Tier Three animals tend to elicit neutral responses or more of a “hmm, that’s nice” or “yeah, those are cute, now let’s talk about how cool dolphins are,”  I am hesitant to type this, but I want to keep it real in this blog so I’m gonna just say that even us zookeepers collectively get a little snobby when it comes to acknowledging people who dedicate their heart and soul to animals like raccoons, goats, all other species of fish and crocodilians not yet mentioned, basically all reptiles not already listed, all unmentioned hoofstock, unmentioned marsupials, rodents, farm animals, all unmentioned birds, all unmentioned simians, lemurs, etc.  

"Now where are those whales?"

Tier Four animals are the animals that may or may not have brains but people can appreciate for 10 seconds.  I’m talking about corals, jellyfish, butterflies anything that lives in a shell, frogs, salamanders, toads, crustaceans, etc.  

Poor, poor little sad, neglected frog.  I love you!!!

Tier Five animals tend to elicit a question from people somewhere along the lines of, “How do I kill this?”  Any insects that are not butterflies, arachnids, worms, etc.

It happens.

There are definitely people who have their most favorite animal in each tier, so this is more of a generalized list.  Okay, onto the second thought.

2.  While there is nothing wrong with having favorite species of animals, it’s time we obliterate this concept that some animals are better than others to care about or for. 

There, there, Toby.

  In fact, there are so many species of animals who are celebrated by the zookeepers who care for them that it makes me want to work with all of them.  The other day, I saw three posts about beloved opossums on Zookreepers.  This included two birthdays, special treats for the birthday-marsupials included.  And the comments on these posts were awesome, including other animal care professionals sharing their own stories about the opossum loves of their lives.

What is it that makes Tier One animals so popular?  It seems like their status is a foregone conclusion, and that we’ve all just stopped paying attention to the facts.  There are so many animal memes and videos floating around the internet that are NOT of tier one animals, yet we still go effing nuts for a baby orca.

I mean, I go effing nuts.  I admit it.

Case in point, let’s just talk about otters.  Lots of people like otters, but not the same way they like dolphins or tigers.  The prestige of working with an elephant surpasses that of an otter, let’s just be real here.  You could argue, “Oh, to be an orca/elephant caregiver, you have to be in tip-top shape, an expert in animal behavioral management, and be extra, extra careful with safety protocols.”  Yes, all true.  But this also goes for otters.  I mean, anyone who’s worked with them and/or has seen their less-than-sunny side knows that you basically need intermediate ninja skills to keep up with their antics.

They are also insanely popular.  I have seen more memes about otters than any dolphin.  In fact, I rarely see dolphin memes.  Or elephant ones.  Or tigers.  In fact, all the Tier One animals are suspiciously absent when it comes to starring in comedic internet imagery.  Is this because they are just too good for such things?  Or because they may actually NOT be the best species for that job?


I’m just gonna say it: otters are way cuter and more mysterious than any dolphin I’ve ever known.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love anyone more than the other, but I’m just telling you that when this little otter Pippin sits in my lap and makes turkey-gobbling sounds and then holds my hand….my heart melts.  Ain’t no dolphin who can hold my hand.

This same concept goes for many, many other species of animals.  Thomson’s gazelles are one of my favorites, because a good friend of mine told me these awesome stories about some of the ones she worked with for a few years.  She shared with me their amazing personalities and that made me go, “Wow, you know, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t really get that excited about them.”  

So fancy!

I also know that a lot of us, when we’re trying to get in the zoo/aquarium field, we tend to have a group of species with whom we really want to work.  When we don’t get that job, but wind up with one caring for animals we don’t know that much about, we can feel disappointed.  But why do we feel like that?  There is nothing wrong with aspiring to work with your favorite species of cockroach, but I’d be willing to bet that if you worked at the job you landed with tamarins, it would be super rewarding if you went into it with an open mind, eager to get to know WHO it is you’re caring for.  You can still aspire to the animals you originally sought, but it hurts no one to throw yourself completely into the animals you’re with.  In fact, it only helps…well, everyone.  You, the animals, your team, and the guests who see how much you love and care for them.

So let’s toss out this idea of some animals are better to work with than others; it’s a matter of perspective.  We can move forward and think, “Wow, that person got a job working with budgies.  How awesome is that!” or “I didn’t land a dolphin training job, but now I get to work with deer!  I wonder what I can learn about them.” 

What animals have you found yourself placing into tiers?  


  1. Some animals are really under appreciated because of their typical behaviour. For example I think wolf eels and octopuses can be jus as popular as sharks, but they like to hide in caves most of the time so people just walk past them.

  2. Oooohhhh I'm definitely guilty of this (hi I'm an orca freak)

  3. Red pandas should be in tier one. They are super cute, good natured and meme GOLD!