Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Appreciated, Appreciative Zookeeper

Today marks the end of Zookeeper Week.


Oh no!!

I shouldn't complain.  It's pretty awesome we get an entire week of appreciation.  Some professions only get a day.  Others...nothing at all.

And frankly, we get a lot of personal satisfaction from working at zoos and aquariums who put their animals first.  But like any career, there are times it feels like a job.  There are times we feel unappreciated.  This Appreciation Week is a good shot in the arm, but also a reminder that we get to do some really, really cool and meaningful stuff.

But what are some of the challenges that typically leave us feeling unappreciated?  Usually, it doesn't have to do with the animals.  In fact, interacting with animals is the highlight of our day*.  But a lot of our job takes us away from happy animal encounters and into situations that make us wonder if maybe we should just sort packages for UPS.

Um.  Is there a Target Stabilizer Appreciation Week?

Here is an honest look at the top four things I think make us zookeepers feel unappreciated...followed by five antidotes that we can all use!

1.  Aggressive visitors

My new life motto

Problem: Part of our job (er, a large part for some of us) is interacting with guests.  As I've mentioned before, one of the most soul-crushing experiences we have is when we talk to someone who either thinks they know more than us and/or are completely disgusted by the work we do.  They believe that the care we provide our animals and the companies we work for are moral-less, evil places and they do not hold back. 

Meanwhile, they have no idea what we have sacrificed to get the position we have.  They don't know the family time we've missed to help one of our animals, vacations cut short, and our hearts broken over sad but usually perfectly natural reasons our animals pass away.  We work hard emotionally and physically to put our animals first AND THEN be fantastic stewards of customer service.  

I think we've all stood in the 100 degree summer days with sweat dripping down our butt cracks and our heads splitting open because of the heat, all the while smiling as a guest tells us how horrid we are for making tons of money off of the suffering of animals.  Meanwhile, all we can think about is a combination of "WTF are you talking about" and "Okay, after this I have to do another round of feeds, do my records, and check in with my intern."

"Explain to me again why you paid to come into a zoo you hate?"

Or in the winter, when you're cleaning exhibits and your hands hurt so badly there isn't even a word to describe it because they are about 0.0001 seconds away from frostbite, and your boogers are frozen all the way up to your brain, and you hear someone telling you how lazy you are because "look at how dirty the enclosures are".  

Solution: Remember that those awfully mean people are a) not very common and b) dealing with stuff that has nothing to do with the awesome work you do.  Challenge yourself to cancel out the ridiculous visitor by finding a super cool one...because you know your zoo is full of those.  Even though the last thing you want to do at that point is talk to another human being, we know how incredible it is to connect with a guest.  So cancel that jerk face out!! 

2.  Sick animals


Problem:  An animal you love so much is sick.  Maybe they are an animal that you can easily handle and diagnose.  Maybe it's an animal who is too dangerous to easily handle, or one who is really huge. Maybe it's an animal we don't know that much about from a veterinary standpoint. 

No matter what the situation, it is a majorly heart-breaking situation to deal with a sick family member, no matter what species he or she is. 

Let's add on top of this the fact that in most cases, the animals get sick suddenly and/or at really already-stressful times.  Is it Christmas Day and you are all finishing up your tasks, looking forward to going home to celebrate what's left of the holiday?  Well, that's a great time for a sea lion to go into respiratory distress.

Perfect timing

As zookeepers, we not only have to make sure we provide perfect care for any sick animals, but we have to make sure we don't slack one iota with the other guys.  You might be riddled with anxiety over a touch-and-go situation with a beloved chimpanzee, but you can't forget about the others in the colony. 

Not only that, but if we are not in a position of authority, we often do not have much of a say in what happens with the treatment of that animal.  That's not a bad thing, but it is challenging.   On the flip side, those of you in management know the tremendous pressure to make the right decisions in critically serious situations.  No matter where you are on the totem pole, you're experiencing a crazy level of stress....on top of simply worrying about how the animal feels and if he or she will get better.

Solution:  You can't prevent all illnesses.  But we can control things that can control illnesses.  We can make sure our protocols are as close to perfect as possible, and that we are following them diligently.  We can control how we communicate to the people who make the decisions, because good communication is critical to proper medical care.  We can learn from medical situations without allowing our ego to get in the way so that we improve the changes of preventing the situation again.

There, there

But as I said, prevention isn't always possible.  If we could stop aging, I think we would!  And no matter what the reason an animal is ill, the best thing to remember is that you are doing your absolute best.  That is always enough, even though it rarely feels like it.  You being there for that animal, for dedicating your time and headspace, for doing what your role is in ensuring that animal is as comfortable as possible....that is the BEST thing to do.  You are lucky enough to be there to comfort an animal a lot of people have only seen on TV.  That is very, very special. 

3.  Always being on call

Preach.  Also, Boromir is wise. 

Problem:  We know when we sign on for this career path that we will never work normal hours.  Even our super high-up managers, who have the 9-5, Monday through Friday jobs are never really Monday through Friday people.  They shoulder the weight of serious responsibility.  If something insane happens with the animals under their care, they are working 26 days in a row. 

We also ADORE the animals in our care.  So being on call is a labor of love.  But... is really, really tough.  Just because we are passionate about our role as animal caregivers doesn't mean that our life outside of the aquarium or zoo isn't important.  We have our companion animals, human kids, family members, social lives or our favorite books.  We have vacations, weddings, or visits with special friends.

There is no "off" as a zookeeper.  Each weekend uninterrupted by work is a gift.  And while we sacrifice our time knowing that an animal is in need, it isn't uncommon for us to feel (and it's okay to admit this, guys) unappreciated when we are called in.  Isn't our mental sanity sacred, especially in a job with as much emotional equity involved as ours?  Do the REAL 9-5ers understand that we are always a phone call away from working extra?  And that being called in is not usually for a happy occasion?

Solution:  Remind yourself of two things: 1) your animals rely 100% on you and your team for all of their care.  That is a very, very heavy responsibility.  They need you...and that is really special.  And 2) Your mental health is also really special.  Balance your time.  Don't burn out, but don't be the one who always says they can't come in.   Yes, you signed up for this.  You signed up to be one of the lucky few who can say they worked 80 hours a week to watch a dolphin be born, or to comfort an aging giraffe in her final moments.  

We should all just cuddle and make each other feel happy

If you're a manager, ask yourself the same question.  Some situations are pretty black and white, but others are not.  The best teams I've worked on were with bosses who appreciated the value in well-rested, happy keepers.  They never abused the "on-call" policy.  When they call us in, we know it's critical.  And we know that for the most part, our personal time is respected.  

4.  Poor pay/benefits


Problem:  Uh oh.  Did I disturb the hornet's nest on this?  I mean this very respectfully, but it is definitely a good idea for us to talk openly on this situation.

Zoos and aquariums are not money-making machines in the vast majority of cases.  We know that.  None of us get into this job so we can be the next Rich Kid of Instagram.  We are paid in the love we get from the animals, the conservation messages we spread, and the work we do to better the lives of animals both in our care and out in the wild. 

But c'mon, we do feel unappreciated when we are made to feel replaceable.  When we want to dedicate the rest of our lives to our careers, but have a family to support...and we can't make ends meet.

No, sorry.

I know some of us work for really incredible places.  We are not rich, but we are paid well.  Our benefits are pretty darn good.  We are really, really lucky.  But you know what?  Our facilities know we are worth it.  And maybe they pay us really low wages, but they do other things for us to show us how much they value much they appreciate us.  It's not just about the number on a paycheck.

But some of us work for places that make us feel as though we aren't valuable members of a team.  They may even tell us point blank that we are replaceable, because there are a million other people lined up for our job.  We know that our field is competitive.  But we are not replaceable as individuals.  We give our lives to our profession in every sense of the word.  We are covered in poop, we perform hard labor, we live in constant anxiety that we did or didn't do something that might result in an animal getting less-than-perfect care.   We sometimes get yelled at by the general public, or in our time off when people find out what we do for a living.   

Solution:  For those of us working in a place who really show they care about us, be grateful.  Learn. Maybe one day you will be in a position to make those kinds of decisions for a team; follow the good example of your employer.   And if you're already part of that decision making process in a reputable facility, THANK YOU for taking such great care of us and showing us you appreciate us.

You've been warned 

For those of us working in a place that could use some improvement in this arena, remind yourself that YOU are not replaceable.  You are a unique, valuable member of your team as long as you are always learning, keeping your ego at bay and you put the animals first.  Your position might be filled if you left, but YOU will not be replicated.  While you can't necessarily control how much you make or how much your benefits are, you can control the quality of work you do.  There may come a time when you move on to a place that treats you the way you feel you deserve.  But no matter what, keep doing your best for the animals.  

And if you are someone who has influence over those decisions, please reconsider.  Look at the amazing things that happen when a dedicated team is appreciated.  They stay longer at your facility, they create new leaders, their new and innovative ideas improve the quality of life for the animals AND the financial situation of your institution.  Your leads/seniors spend less time training new employees and more time developing blossoming or seasoned ones.  Happy keepers = happy animals.  And please, never ever say that your team members are replaceable. 

What's the bottom line though?

No matter what, the ANIMALS appreciate you.  Always.  

Side note: who wants to open a sanctuary with me for rescued farm animals?

An honest, empathetic, and intellectually curious zookeeper will always have a huge fan club in their animals.  There is nothing more special than to have the trust of the animals in your care.  And for those of you who work with animals who may not have this capability (liiiiiiike jelly keepers, or insect keepers), you are more noble still.  You dedicate your time, heart, and sanity for creatures who may not know you even exist.  And yet, you still give them the best life possible.  That is AWESOME.

This week, Facebook exploded with Zookeeper Appreciation mojo.  WE appreciate each other.  We have each others' backs.  I'm so proud to be a member of this community.  We may experience tough times, but we always have each other for support and encouragement.

Happy Zookeeper Appreciate Week today and all the other days of the year!


* Closely followed by lunch**
** Closely followed by random snacks

1 comment: