Sunday, June 4, 2017

Life After Zookeeping, Part 1

Last week, I went to the Maryland Zoo.  That was a significant trip for a few reasons:


1.  It was my first time to the zoo since I moved here over a year ago
2.  It was the first time my daughter could actually identify the animals and gave s*** about them
3.  It was the first time I've been to a zoo or aquarium since I left the field in October

It's the last point I want to make this week's blog about.

I remember long before I got into the field, I read the book Lads Before The Wind by Karen Pryor.  It quickly became one of my favorites, but there was one part that really bothered me.  It's when she talks about returning to Sea Life Park after she left, seeing the animals she spent so much time with, and concluding that she really didn't miss them that much. 

How. Is. That. Even. Possible.

It struck fear in my heart then, and for the entire duration of my career.  I couldn't understand how anyone could not instantly weep at the thought of leaving the animals they love so much.  Now, as I progressed through my career, I learned that every keeper has their own, personal way of processing their emotions when it came to leaving the animals in their life.  So I am not in any way saying that the only appropriate response is to ugly cry.

But what I struggled with was how someone could leave not just the animals, but the field in general, and not be totally wrecked.  Worse, what if you left the field and just became apathetic?  Like you look fondly back at parts of your career, but overall you don't really care.

No arguments here, Wednesday.

My decision to switch careers was one that was made over several years.  The new path was distilled over many, many oscillations of insecurity and confidence regarding my future in the marine mammal community.  When I made the choice, it was something I knew was right....but it was still fraught with anxiety.

My style of dealing with heartbreak is usually to just completely cut off whatever it is that is hurting me.  So I basically avoided zoological institutions, because I was afraid I would either feel like I was totally shattered at not being directly connected to animals and the zoo world, or (again WORSE) that I would just be like, "Oh, I don't miss this at all."

Enter Maryland Zoo.  I was terrified, and I don't think anyone knew that even as we walked through the gates. 

Maryland Zoo is GORGEOUS.  It is surrounded by incredibly lush forest, its layout takes you through winding paths of towering trees.  The exhibits are amazing, from an animal care/wellness perspective but also from an educational and conservation standpoint.  It is one of the best zoos I have gone to.  Its overall design and layout were enough to distract me for a while from my insecurity.

This photo from Trip Advisor shows the awesome walk to the exhibits

But then we got to the African penguin habitat (OH MY GOD. Amazzzzzzzing), and things changed.  I saw a few penguins molting, looking like physical representations (or blobs) of crabbiness.  I heard their hilarious "wooohhhhh" calls, smelled a smell that used to knock me backwards when I worked at Gulfarium, and -as my daughter pointed out with much delight- watched the penguins poop ("poot" if you're my 2 year old) in the water.  My kid went nuts.  And I said without thinking, "Hey, mom used to work with this type of penguin!"

Suddenly, I noticed a penguin that looked a lot like one of the ladies I used to care for (Zeut, for anyone reading this who knows the Gulfarium flock).  The combination of speaking allowed the since-past part of my life with marine animals with seeing a penguin who reminded me of another one made me suddenly really sad.  

You know what it felt like? It felt like a break up, a few months or whatever afterwards, where someone brings up the name of your ex and you think you're over him/her but you quickly realize that there is still a noticeable pang in your heart.  You have a feeling like, you know it's okay that it is over, but at the same time it feels like you are missing something really important.  You don't feel whole.

What relief!

It also feels like you are no longer a part of this amazing society anymore.  Do any other former keepers feel this way?  Like duh, obviously you're not actually employed by a zoo or aquarium, but that unspoken connection between zoo folk only seems to be reserved for people actively in the field (not a criticism, just an observation about my own feelings on the subject).  And it isn't because people who are still in zoo jobs make you feel that way.  It's just something that happens in your own brain.
Man, this entry is getting a little heavy.  The good news is, my trip to the Maryland Zoo did not go downhill from that point.  I mean, I saw a baby giraffe.  It is medically impossible to feel sad when you see a giraffe cafe.  But I also got to overhear some pretty great guest comments.  These were made even better by the fact that the zoo was having its Brew At The Zoo event, so some of these people had imbibed malted adult beverages.  I am pleased to share with you some of these quotes.

Overheard by the grizzly and polar bear exhibits

"Remember the guy who feel in the polar bear exhibit? He was drunk or something and he fell in and the bear ate him. I think.  Or he escaped.  The man, not the bear.  Maybe I am making it up."

I...don't know.

An exchange between two very drunk people watching two spurred tortoises uh, doing what tortoises do best

Man: Doesn't this remind you of something?
Woman: The tortoise and the hare!
Man: No. Something else
Woman: Oh...oh! 
Man: Like...Jordis? No. Uh...
Woman: OH! Jordan and Cher!!!
Man: No....oh!! Jack and Diane!


A woman who basically appeared at every exhibit we were at (could not establish her level of sobriety) uttered the following nonsense in a very calm, matter-of-fact tone: 

At the penguin habitat

"I wish they would like let the penguins fight each other like for mates.  So they could tear each other up."

At the cheetah exhibit

"I wish they would like put a rabbit in there and let them tear it up."

Okay, just go away.

These moments of levity, the awesome exhibits and general cool vibe of the zoo definitely helped me process my not-so-great feelings.  Maryland Zoo guys are doing a great job, at least from my perspective.

The thing is, I do really miss working with the animals I've come to know and love.  I also miss a lot of humans currently in or long since retired.  Despite this, I am still really excited about my new direction.  It feels like it was the right time to jump off.  And I am okay.  I am happy, even though I still feel a hole in my heart where the animals were. 
For all former keepers (or anyone seriously considering switching careers), what has your experience been? 


  1. I'm right there with you. I was a keeper for 10 years and decided to leave to train service dogs. I absolutely love it, but I miss the community. My job now is a solitary profession, there's very little camaraderie and that's a big part of what I miss from the zoo community. Who do you commiserate with? As usual, you managed to hit the nail on the head.

    1. Yes, the community is really a major aspect to the lifestyle, and it is definitely more evident when you are no longer actively involved.

      I feel you on the commiserating aspect, too. My job was basically all I talked about, and now I am like uhhhh what do I even say?

  2. I was a seasonal for 6 weeks 20 years ago. I interned/volunteered then, worked in education a bit, and started back up as a husbandry volunteer about 4 years ago. I do academic research on/around zoos and aquariums. But I'm not a keeper or a trainer. I usually say something like "I'm involved in the zoo/aquarium field". It's not a fun limbo.

  3. I miss it every day. I left to complete a PhD I am not sure I even want. I miss the hands on with animals, miss the people, and hope some day to get back into it.

    1. What is your PhD in?

      I hope you get back into it, too, if that is what you ultimately really want. Or that you find that your academic path takes you towards a satisfying career.

  4. I have put two careers behind me at this point - the first that I earned a PhD for that I don't miss at all, and the second a few years as an animal keeper. I do feel some regret that it didn't work out for the long term, and I am very glad that I am still involved with zoos as a keeper volunteer and often interviewing zoo people for my writing. The thing I always tell people who are considering a change is that just because something is worth doing, doesn't mean you have to do it forever. Something can be incredibly intensely important and yet, eventually it runs its course. And that's OK.

    1. That is an EXCELLENT, and very reassuring point. Thanks, wombat :)

  5. I was only a keeper for a few years, and I still work with animals (dogs) and love my job, but it is hard to go back and not feel like you are a part of it. I miss it and I have to take a moment to remind myself of why I went a different direction (which are valid reasons) or I get really sad. I hate that I can't experience zoos with the same uncomplicated joy I used to.

  6. I just left the keeping world and this post was really helpful for me. It was a very difficult decision, and I share all of the feelings that you're expressing. Even though I know the new path that I'm following is the right one, there's still a gaping hole in my heart that I'm not sure will ever be entirely filled. I will miss my animals and the life that could have been for as long as I live, but will always be grateful and humbled that I had the time with them that I did.

    1. I think it helps a lot to have confidence in the new adventure, even though it doesn't replace the old life or heal the pain of leaving. What is your new path?

  7. Cat I felt the same way leaving last year- I was scared I would forget the Penguins or not care. I went back after a month and wanted to cry because I had missed them so much. I did care and I didn't forget. Thankfully the animals didn't all forget either. I also agree that it feels odd to no longer be in the community- I still feel invested in it and knowledgeable but your observation is spot on, you just don't feel in it anymore. I also think I ultimately made the right choice but it wasn't easy. So happy for you and your new direction! The field lost a great trainer though!!

    1. Awww thanks Veronica!! I didn't realize you had let the field, either! What is your new direction?

  8. Not being a current zookeeper doesn't mean you have to stop loving zoo animals, even the ones you used to work with. Every experience you have after it's over is part of you, former coworkers can always stay friends and there are whole communities out there of just plain animal lovers. MY dad was a truck driver for a long time and even though he doesn't anymore he still has an interest in that sort of thing. The point is you don't have to be employed in something to love it. Lots of career focused people seem to forget that.

    1. Yep, you are totally right. And I definitely do not feel like my love for animals or support of great zoos is waning at all. But with that said, at least in my experience, there is a massive chasm between the relationship you had with the animals working with them everyday, and the weirdness of seeing them for a few minutes on a random visit. I also do not agree with everything currently happening in the marine mammal community, which had a little to do with looking elsewhere for work. So it's definitely a complicated situation.

      Additionally, I DO know some former keepers who really didn't have their heart in the job to begin with, and don't think twice about their old lives. That is something I just can't relate to

  9. preach it! :) I absolutely love my job but I miss the marine mammals terribly! I still dream about them and msq frequently, and always wake a little bummed. It's been 10 years now and it's starting to feel like a different lifetime, but like a good mutual break -up ex, I just try to remember it fondly but put my energy towards today... Oh, and enjoy the ride!

  10. I left the zoo field about nine years ago, after a twenty-five year career in the business. Although, my career started much earlier as as zoo explorer in my high school years. I miss my friends, and the animals and have always wished that I could have continued my career in the field, but there were minimal opportunities for advancement within the zoo (at the time, since then they have opened up a few senior positions). For a short time after leaving, I volunteered for a few hours a week, this did not last too long. I was concerned that I could never mentally make the transition from a keeper to a volunteer. I still visit my animal and human friends and enjoy their company. One of the things I miss is the lunch room conversations, and the very strange sense of humor shared by the group.

  11. This post definitely touched me. I worked at a zoo for five and a half years, and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, I did leave the field. For me, I'm not sure the mixed/bittersweet emotions have ever completely disappeared (I am a little over five years into my new career in libraries), although they have lessened over time. It helps that since I have left, I went back and volunteered intermittently (probably a year and a half or so after I left I started volunteering - took that long to get to a place where I felt like I could), which helped to soften the blow and bring some closure. My "second" leaving, when I stopped volunteering, was much easier to bear. I still miss the animals I loved (although sadly a number of them have passed away now), and I still cherish the memories with the people, although many of them have moved on through retirement, other jobs, families, and geographical changes. I still love zoos and what they do and I'm not altogether certain I won't return in another capacity one day. Since I have left, however, I have started a new career, earned one master's degree, and am working on a second master's; I have been able to travel quite a lot, and I have been able to do a lot of things that I never would have while in my previous job. Being able to look at all of these things has helped significantly. Thanks for your post, love your blog!

  12. I relate to this post a lot! I left the zoo field 1.5 years ago after wanting so badly to be a keeper and then realizing it wasn't for me. Then i left the veterinary field a few months ago to do a job that's completely unrelated to animals. I still dream about the Busch Gardens job, and I do miss the animals, but it's not the heartbreak that I thought i would have. Truth is, I'm happy in my new job and even though I miss being outdoors and seeing animals, there's plenty of compensation (air conditioning, no poop, job security, a better salary, more opportunity to advance in the company). My office job has increased my enjoyment for my pets and taking care of them. But I miss the feeling of belonging when you work in the zoo/veterinary field. I have lost touch with a lot of my friends from those days, partially because I'm bad at keeping in touch but also because I'm no longer in that unofficial society. I miss that connection that you mentioned. I have been to zoos since and I always feel very strong nostalgia when I do.