Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dedicated, The Passionate, The Zookeeper

I was gonna write about why caring for animals is the best.  With the changes happening in our field, especially the marine mammal one, I've had a lot of people ask me "what's next?"  While my perspective is just an opinion, I wanted to share/remind all of us why it is we do what we do, and what the big picture awesomeness is.

Look at all those awesome faces!

But then, something tragic happened on Friday and it felt wrong to not acknowledge it.

A very loved, well-respected lead tiger caretaker at Palm Beach Zoo was killed by one of the tigers to whom she dedicated her life.  I didn't know this person, nor do I know the details of the incident.  You can read the latest news about it if you want to know more, but that's not the point of this blog.

In fact, I don't even know what the point of this blog is.  I'm writing purely from an emotional place right now because I think we are all in that mindset.  And that basically brings up what we all know--and that is...

...that this is a job of the heart*. 

Every life matters

In a philosophical and literal sense, we use our brains to do a lot of different things at work.  The logistics of animal care are seemingly endless and require a lot of energy to remember to do every single day.  We literally wear our bodies down doing our job.  We destroy our joints, skin, eyes, connective tissue, feet and hands just doing status-quo work.  It doesn't matter if you work with hissing cockroaches living in a 10 gallon tank or elephants in a gigantic habitat; you're busting your butt every day to make sure they have the best of what you can offer.

We exhaust our emotional energy by interacting with our guests.  We share our life's work with people, we tie our own moods to that one AMAZING guest who just wants to know more, or who loves animals....or to the not-so-amazing one who calls us wardens, or the one (worse) who tells us they don't care about animals. 

I can't even tell you how much I loved this dolphin

Our emotional energy is not just used on guest interactions, but on our own team of humans and non-humans.  We are constantly asking ourselves questions like: was that the best I could do? Did I make the right decision?  Am I good enough?

Our logical brain is filled with questions and check-points/failsafes: is everything safe for the animals? Is everything secure (usually to protect the animals from wandering guests)?  We sort through and weigh out food amounts, we monitor medical cases, vitamins and medications, behavioral changes, social changes, enrichment, etc.  Every day is filled to the brim and every day we go at it 100%.**

We make a promise to each animal we care for to always do our best.

WHY do we do this?  Some of us are lucky enough to make a living that is not paycheck to paycheck, but most of us don't make a lot of money.  Some of us don't make enough to live on, so we sacrifice a lot of comfort in our personal lives so that we can continue the mission we believe so deeply in.  Some of us wind up with second or third jobs; talk about running down your reserves.  We don't spend holidays with family, we don't see our kids as often because our hours are weird, we are always on-call.  We feel a deep and profound grief when an animal dies; even moreso when we know that the rest of the world doesn't understand our pain with the species of animals they don't deem "worth" grieving for.

So why do we do this? 

Because. It. Is. Important.  

The lives of the animals in our care matter.  What they represent matters.  The lives of their wild counterparts matter.  The entire world should care the same way we do about the animals collectively and individually, but they don't. So how do we bridge that gap?  How do we reach out to people who feel hopeless about making a positive impact on the environment?  How do we get through people's heads that animals are not just machines "put" here for human use?  That their fate is ours?


Each one of us does what we do because we deeply, deeply believe that what we do as individuals is our life's passion.  It is virtually impossible to do what we do on a daily basis if we don't believe in what we do with our entire heart.  It is a soul-sucking feeling to be involved in a program where you do not believe 100% in that place's mission; it is not a long-term option.  You can pay zookeeper's minimum wage, make them work 80 hours a week, and protest everything they do 24/7, but give them an ethical, meaningful place to do their thing and you've got someone who will stay as long as they can.

So when an animal caretaker is killed doing what he or she loves, we feel a lot of rotten things.  It calls into light what we ALL know to varying extents: that many species of animals we care for are dangerous.  It's not that you show up to work every day expecting some horrible thing to happen, but you always know there's a possibility of something awful happening.  You may go your entire career never experiencing that, or knowing anyone personally who goes through it.  But when something like this happens, it makes us all pause.  It makes us bow our heads not only in deep respect for a life lost, but because that person was just like the rest of us: passionate, intelligent, knowledgeable.  A lead keeper with oodles of experience is not impervious to a random accident.

They aren't machines, so they aren't predictable

Then of course, we get the people who respond like it's their job to judge and punish.  "This is another example of animals lashing out of frustration because they live in captivity."  Oh, wow.  How insightful.  You know, if only the thousands of us who are experts in the animal care profession had that crystal-clear insight into the psyche of the animals in our care.  Of COURSE! Why didn't we think of that first? That a tiger or orca or elephant are MAD so they just LASH OUT.

Is that productive?  Does it EVER invoke the change the extremeists want to see, when they make one statement declaring the reason behind "the attack"?  I think this not only completely disrespects the care and love the keeper provided the animal, but it also incorrectly simplifies the individual animal.  We don't know why he did what he did.  We could say he's a wild animal, so what did we expect?  We could say he was confused.  Or that he was playing and didn't know his own strength.  Or defending territory, or displacing aggression from another situation.  All of these are possible reasons, but unless anyone can sit down and ask the tiger what was going through his head, it's just our guess (the experts' guesses, I should say).

We don't even know why members of our OWN species hurt each other

What we do know is that the tiger in question is a Malayan tiger, a member of an extremely endangered species.  The keeper who died played a key role in conserving that species--a species that can kill a person in a zoo setting or in the wild.  Dangerous yes, but worth saving as a species, too.  

With the fantastic intention and good work towards saving or conserving a species, there come a lot of risks, especially with dangerous animals.  

So I think we all take a moment in quiet reflection to thank this keeper for what she has accomplished in her lifetime, for the sacrifices she and her family have made for the sake of something she stood for with her entire heart.  We know that feeling.  We live that feeling, in spite of a lot of adversity.  We are the animal advocates,  embracing the best and absolute worst parts of this life's work we call our careers. 

My thoughts are with the family of any animal care professional who has passed away while caring for animals. 

* Thank you, April, for this inspiring phrase.

** And if you don't, it's time for a new profession


  1. Thank you for this.

  2. Beautifully written as usual. Thank you.

  3. I was a keeper at the Palm Beach Zoo years ago, and now I run a Nature Center. My greatest love is to share the experience of animal interactions (and it doesn't always have to be physical) with guests, volunteers, and other staff. Thank you for sharing your passion and condolences for Stacey.

  4. My condolences to Stacey's family and all her colleagues. You love the animals you work with and your love is unconditional. Some of these animals are dangerous and wild and they can turn unexpectedly at any time. May she rest in peace

  5. My condolences to Stacey's family and all her colleagues. You love the animals you work with and your love is unconditional. Some of these animals are dangerous and wild and they can turn unexpectedly at any time. May she rest in peace

  6. It is because we have in this world, Zookeepers, keepers of animals, so that I can go and see a wild tiger, or giraffe, rhino, etc, I would never have the opportunity to see one its natural habitat. I know and respect the fact that you often put your life on the line every day.
    I was sad to see that one of your own lost her life, and I don't care how or why it happened, it just did.
    Thank-you to all you wonderful Zookeepers out there, for doing what you do,so that I have the privilege of visiting the Zoo, and taking in a part of what you do each and every day!