|A birthday many moons ago!|
Animal care professionals have differing opinions about celebrating the birth*days of our animals. Sometimes, we don't know the exact date of birth. In many cases though, we are aware of our animal friends' birthdays. And it's a time to have fun.
As far as we know, marking the passage of another year is a unique quality to humans. At least, we are the showiest of all animals when it comes to rejoicing just because we made it through another year of life. With many of our so-called "special human qualities" (you know, the ones that differentiate us from other animals) diminishing, we ought to pay homage to our ability to party.
|Indeed, I will sir Algar.|
Some of us make a big deal about this day with our animals. We have birthday-themed enrichment, maybe even a favorite or special food, we announce the Big Day to our guests, maybe even have a special event at our facility.
As I've mentioned though, not all of us are big into bdays. Some of us point that out, while it's fun for the humans, it's really anthropomorphic to encourage guests to think that the animals celebrate, not touchy-feelyness.
But my take on it is that celebrating an animal's birthday is not in and of itself "dangerously" anthropomorphic. It is a unique way that humans mark an important event. We feel it's a big deal in our lives (well, some of us do...more on that in a bit), and so we naturally extend this cheer towards those we love, regardless of their species.
|Hatchday, birthday, it's all the same: a reason to party!|
It's one thing to sacrifice the high-quality care we provide to animals in order to have a big bday bash. For example, if you're playing super loud music and inviting a lot of potentially frightening stimuli to a shy, anxious animal, that's not a good idea. But if you choose something tasteful and appropriate for that particular animal, why NOT mark an important milestone?
So WHY celebrate a birthday?
1. It's Another Way To Connect Visitors With Animals
|Lots of people celebrating a special dolphin's birthday!|
When it comes to guests, this is an easy way to forge a connection between them and the animals you already connect with. I'm not saying that having a birthday party automatically means that an animal's life is suddenly worthy of interest, but most of our visitors are not animal-minded. Using a common, positive cultural action like celebrating a birthday is a great way to draw attention to the uniqueness of animals as individuals. That is something we know our visitors respond very positively and strongly towards. If they connect on a one-on-one level with an animal, they are that much more likely to care about their wild counterparts.
|I mean, look at that cake.|
Birthdays are great ways of showcasing really important times in the zoological community. For example, Marineland of Florida was the home to Nellie. She was the oldest dolphin of any species born in human care. She passed away at 61 years old. Sixty-one for a bottlenose dolphin is basically like a human getting to 110: it happens, but not very often.
Her birthdays not only became important markers for the marine mammal care field, but also the community surrounding Marineland. Everyone came out to celebrate Nellie's birthday: lots and lots of people loved and cared about her. They realized how old dolphins could live. And that realization opened up important conversations about helping the struggling populations of wild bottlenose dolphins along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts who are suffering massively from disease and starvation directly related to human activity.
You can blah blah blah at people for hours about the horrific effects of human pollution on dolphins. You can post sad photos of dead wild dolphins. But there is something more powerful about staring into the aging eyes of a 61 year old dolphin and thinking, "Shouldn't all bottlenose dolphins have the best chance at living to this ripe old age?" or "Why can't all dolphins be like Nellie?"
2. In Our Human-Way, We Show Respect
|If Chuck says so, you better listen.|
No, our animals may not understand why the heck we are giving them an ice cake, or cupcakes made of jello, or an extra helping of mealworms.** But as I've mentioned, celebrating birthdays is a very loving tradition in many human cultures. If you're coming from a giving place, throwing an animal birthday party is one way we show the animals we care for respect. We respect their right to be here. We respect their individuality; they matter.
|Even tortoises appreciate a good cupcake|
By the way, that's not me saying that if you don't celebrate birthdays that you therefore don't respect your animal pals. Everyone does this in their own way. I'm simply showing how a very anthropomorphic/anthropocentric situation is not necessarily a gaudy, pointless gesture.
It's also a way for our visitors to show respect, too. We have repeat visitors, or people who have learned about certain animals at our respective zoos and aquariums. People want to find a way to show how much they care for the animals we are lucky enough to know and love. Birthday parties are an easy way for guests to do that....and that's really cool.
3. They're FUN
|A paper bag? You shouldn't have!|
Zoo peeps, WE. WORK. HARD. We have great days, we have &%#*ing terrible days. We have days where, no matter how much we love our jobs, we are TIRED. We want to stay home when it's raining, or it's snowing, or it's 82359825 degrees outside. Or when we are just exhausted and think we could use a long weekend.
Our brains never, ever rest in our job. It is so rewarding and wonderful, but sometimes you need to just cut loose a little and have a giant slice of cookie cake.
When we celebrate our animals' birthdays, we know we also tend to bring in treats for our team, too. We aren't going to eat a squid-ice cake (I mean, you could but....), but we want to share in the classic birthday traditions of breaking bread (er cake?) as a means of marking a loved one's year of life. So we bring in treats for ourselves. We gorge. We enjoy. We take photos and post cute Facebook statues about the birthday boy or girl.
|Birthday om noms!|
It's perfectly reasonable for us science-minded, super engaged zookeepers to set aside some time to fill our stomachs with crap. The delicious kind, I mean.
It builds camaraderie among our department, and hopefully others as well. Zookeepers who have moved onto other facilities or careers can share memories of the animal, reaffirming the respect and love we have for them. Birthdays unite zookeepers, too.
4. It Gives Us A Reason To Celebrate Our OWN Big Day
|Born on the same day, get to celebrate birthdays together!! WIN!|
What is it about marine mammal trainers that make them dread their birthday? Zoo-people, does this happen in your world, too?
It's like once a trainer isn't 22 anymore, they freak out that they're "old". I'm 32 and I still act like I'm 9. I fully plan on never acting my age until I'm dead, at which point I'll still probably act like a kid in the afterlife because I'm still fuzzy on heavenly social rules.
But seriously, we are all like "YAY! THIS IS GREAT!" as our animals get to be old, older, and super ancient. But we as humans are really upset about this advancement in years. WHY? What are we worried about?
Here's something to remember, for those of you who hate celebrating your birthday because you're "old"":
1. You are already aging yourself faster than the average person doing the job you do. So embrace it.
2. But.....your job keeps you mentally young. You're doing something you're passionate about: you didn't get stuck in a job that's meaningless to you. So mentally, you're staying young and fresh.
3. You're not old until you reach triple digits
4. The alternative to getting older is way sadder, and also there is less cake (I mean, I'm pretty sure)
So if you're going to toss extra fiddler crabs into your river otter exhibit for a birthday surprise, you better make sure you make your birthday lots of fun, too (or let your coworkers help).
Cross culturally/behavioral barriers. Celebrate the birthdays of those you know, regardless of species. Make it a special, special day for that individual (or individuals, in the cases of litters/clutches).
What are your favorite zoo birthday memories (of your animals and your own work birthdays)?
* Or hatch days, for you non-mammalian lovers
** Although maybe they do, and they just play it cool because they don't want us to know they can understand everything we say and do