6. Jack Hanna

Photo courtesy of Sheldrick Trust

If you’re one of those people who need an example to follow, I recommend looking at Jack Hanna. In his autobiography, “Jungle Jack: My Wild Life,” Hanna admitted that from an early age he knew that he had a love for animals. On the ranch where he grew up, he met the veterinarian for the Knoxville Zoo named Dr. Roberts. At the young age of eleven he worked in Dr. Roberts’ local vet clinic. But, it wasn’t until after he graduated from Muskingum College with a Bachelor of Arts degree that he got to work with animals again.

He opened a pet shop called Pet Kingdom with his wife Suzi.  Later he took on the job of being the director for a zoo in Columbus, Ohio. Unfortunately, the zoo’s habitats weren’t up to date and there was a low attendance rate. In an interview for National Geographic, Hanna reveals just how bad it was by saying that “the Zoo was under the City’s Sewers and Drains dept.” In order to improve the zoo and bring in more guests, he made educational and entertaining events by creating zoo education departments. In his own personal website called “Jack Hanna” he said that this is “a goal that the zoo is still working to achieve today.”

But, his popularity didn’t really grow until he took up the growing trend of using animal ambassadors to reach out to the public. I have him to thank, along with several others, that my passion for wild animals grew to what it is today. Hanna made appearances on shows like ”The Late Night Show with David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres,” and “Larry King Live.” He became so successful with this that he was given his own shows called “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures” and “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.” It just goes to show you that keeping up with the trend and being able to affectively communicate with the public can work to your advantage.


5. Zookeeper for a Day at Busch Gardens

A real eye opener for me was participating in the Zookeeper for a Day event at Busch Gardens in Tampa Florida. And what really helped me realize just how much information I got in just one day was using James Paul Gee’s five element of a discourse (or community) from his essay, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” to break down the discourse of zoo keeping. The five elements are saying, doing, being, believing, and valuing. First off, you need to get there by 6 o’clock in the morning well before the park actually opens. Once I was there, I was immediately paired with two keepers. One of them shook my hand and then asked me why I wanted to have this job. I stared back at her for a second and said, “Honestly? I like working with animals much more than people.” She smiled and said, “Great! Me too.” I was hoping that we would have the same beliefs. This helped to reassure me that I would be a good fit into this career because we have the same beliefs (which are the reasons for wanting this job). So I hopped into the back of their truck and rode with them out in the direction of the giraffe and zebra exhibit.

Immediately I learned about the vast variety in the herbivores’ diet and the amount of physical labor that goes into just giving them breakfast. We had to load on several different bales of hay that weighed at least 60 pounds each. Then we went to a warehouse where we collected the various bags of grain and where I learned the different terms (or lexis) of the job, which is the element of saying. For example, the bag of grain that had more sugar and fruit in it was referred to “sweet feed.” I also learned about how they use the walkie-talkies to communicate. Since all of the walkie-talkies are on the same station, all of the keepers can hear the message. In order to make sure the right person is listening they follow the rule (or convention for saying), which is to call the person’s name or ask for anyone who is near the exhibit in question to respond. Otherwise, the message will go unnoticed since it would be impossible for the keeper to be constantly checking the walkie-talkie.

Afterwards we took the truck out onto the fields and loaded the food into the troughs, which is part of the element doing. Admittedly I was nervous about getting off the truck and landing into the animals’ territory. The keepers told me that as long as I didn’t approach the animals they wouldn’t be aggressive. Approaching them could be taken as an aggressive move, especially since there were three zebra foals that the herd protects. Only if they came to me would it be all right to touch one. Another thing I kept an eye on was the way the keepers interacted with the animals. I have heard from various sources and documentaries that a keeper should try not to become attached to the animals in the zoo. To be honest this is the one rule of zoo keeping that I will have trouble with. However, I was relieved to see that the keepers addressed the animals the same way I would: using baby talk and an affectionate tone. So we had the same attitude (which is a part of the element being) towards animals. Another aspect of being is that all of the employees had to wear uniforms and so did I. It would communicate to others the level of authority that the person had.

Later, when I was officially done for the day, I wandered around the park and noticed that one of the keepers was giving a little speech at the cheetah exhibit. Before that day I didn’t think that it was the keeper’s job to really have any direct interaction with the guests at the park. Then I realized that who better understands the animals than the keepers themselves. One of their values is to inform the public because more informed people are more likely to help conservation efforts, which is one of a keeper’s goals.

4. The Animals

Here is the part that most people look forward to in this career, but you can’t allow yourself to think that working with these animals is all fun and games. For starters these animals are in a zoo, which means that most of them are endangered and/or exotic. Each species and even each individual animal has its own unique requirements, like when it comes to diet or medicine. A more serious problem is that these wild animals can go from docile to aggressive in a blink of an eye. You can never get complacent around them. A prime example of this was shown in the documentary on the TV channel, Animal Planet, called the “Awesome Pawsome: Tiger Island,” which takes place in an Australian zoo. On it the manager of Tiger Island, Patrick Martin-Vegue, said that his knee was thrown out because a tiger turned around and bumped the man’s knee with her hip. Even when the tiger wasn’t even paying attention to him, it still damaged him enough to where now he needs a knee brace.

You will also need to be aware what conservation programs they may be in for several reasons. One reason is to help inform the public. Another important reason is that you may have to be the one to make arrangements with other zoos. Since the keepers are the ones who constantly monitor the animals, the other zoo directors will look to your opinion and the veterinarian’s for which animals to recommend for the program. In another animal documentary on Animal Planet called “Growing Up Cheetah,” the cheetah cub’s keeper, Nadine, had to consult with the other keepers to decide which of the cubs would be the best to participate in the international breeding program.

And always keep in mind that it’s best not to get too attached to the animals, which admittedly most keepers can’t control. “From a professional point of view, it’s important that you try and avoid it as much as possible. Animals will die, or move to other collections, and it’s sometimes important to not become too much in touch,” said keeper, Simmonds, during his interview. It’s just that many of the animals are involved in conservation efforts, like the animals in the cheetah documentary, which may involve breeding to keep the numbers up. In situations like these, it’s common for zoos to trade animals to prevent inbreeding and to have a more diverse gene pool. Letting your emotions get in the way could be a problem when it comes down to deciding which animals will stay and which will go.

Here is the link for the “Awesome Pawsome- Tiger Island” documentary part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCWvlJMiUxI

Here is the link for the “Growing Up Cheetah” documentary: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8800575593380999567

3. Outside the Zoo: Animal Ambassadors

The outside the zoo can be just as important as the inside, since it is the outside that determines the inner working of the zoos. Communicating with the public brings people into the zoos and spreads the messages of conservation. A relatively new trend in this field that caters to this need is the use of animal ambassadors. These animals are a select group of animals of various species that are chosen to represent their species or the zoo and spread conservation programs. But, not all zoo animals are cut out for being an ambassador. Keepers look for animals with good temperaments and that do well with large crowds of people. This was the case in the Oregon Zoo with its rhino. In an article in the Columbian, (“Oregon Zoo Vets Put Down Popular Rhino”) the writer mentioned that the zoo’s rhino’s sweet disposition made him a great ambassador. And the experts of the field readily approve of this new trend because most of the people handling the ambassadors are the experts. Dave Salmoni, for example, is an expert in apex predators and he frequently appears on TV with these animal ambassadors.

In National Geographic, Mendelson wrote an article, “Cheetah Ambassador Enlightens People About Big Cat,” about an audience seeing a live cheetah right in front of them. “It is an event that nobody forgets, and brings the issues surrounding the cheetah to another level for an audience that lives on the other side of the world.” Using animals makes more of an impact on the public than just simply lecturing the audience, which is why it is such an important trend. It’s what made me want to work with wild animals as I was growing up. Watching them on shows like, “David Letterman” and “Conan O’Brian,” made the animals more entertaining. Not to mention that using these shows reaches a wider audience and uses the host’s ethos (or reputation) to the zoo’s advantage.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

And not only do these animals help spread knowledge about their own species, but they help others as well. These animals are known as surrogate ambassadors and they are used to represent several other species. For example, in another article for National Geographic called “Surrogate Ambassador Species: The Lynx as a Case Study” the author, Schaul, discusses how bobcats are being used to promote other bobcats and lynxes because lynxes. Lynxes are more endangered than bobcats, so it would be rather difficult to find enough to help spread word about their conservation efforts.

Here is the link for the cheetah ambassador article: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/25/cheetah-ambassador/

Here is the link for the bobcat surrogate ambassador article: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/08/21/surrogate-ambassador-species-the-lynx-as-a-case-study/

2. Once You Have the Job of Being a Zookeeper

The number one thing that zookeepers have to is a ton of physical labor and dirty work. And while the public may be aware of what the dirty work is, I don’t think they really understand just how filthy and disgusting it can be. Someone has to clean up the exhibit that holds ten full-grown elephants. On top of that feeding can also be a daunting challenge. The herbivores’ food comes in bags or bales of hay, which can weigh up to 100 pounds each.

Besides all the physical labor, the book “Careers for Animal Lover and Other Zoological Types” also mentioned that a keeper must watch the animals’ behaviors. “Behavioral changes, however slight, may mean that something is wrong with the animal.” It’s their duty to monitor the animals and make the appropriate calls when they suspect something is wrong with the animal. In order to do this a keeper must understand the animal’s natural behavior, which can vary within a species and train the animals. In an interview with a keeper, Daniel Simmonds, said that training the more dangerous animals “to do things like presenting their arms or perhaps opening their mouth” so that the keeper can examine them without sedatives. The interview also brought up the fact that some of the animals “might require 24-hour care [if] critically injured.” And what many people don’t realize is that no matter how bad the weather is or if it’s a holiday, the animals still need to be cared for every single day.

Another responsibility a keeper has is to handle and cater to the guests. While I was shadowing zookeepers from Busch Gardens, I was surprised by how much the keepers interacted with the guests by answering questions and giving speeches. Friendly interactions will increase the chances of the guests returning to the zoo or wildlife park. And possibly inspire the same love for animals in others. You also want to entertain the animals so that they display their natural behavior for the guests to observe and learn.

1. Things You Need to Know Before You Get the Job

Most people think that if someone loves animals that person should become a vet or maybe even a zookeeper. I myself was one of those people. However, what many people don’t seem to realize is that the jobs requires so much more than a love for animals. A research project in my Composition II class has forced me to really dig into my idea for a career and make some discoveries that are crucial for the field of zoo keeping, even before you get the job. Knowing these things may deter some from even pursuing the career all together.

One thing that must be made clear is that you must be in it for the love of the animals, not the money. The average salary for most zookeepers is around $30,000 a year, which isn’t much better than a janitor’s yearly salary. In terms of education I wasn’t surprised to find that in the book, “Careers for Animal Lover and Other Zoological Types,” the author recommended a degree in biology, animal behavior, and zoology. However, last year when I went to Discovery Cove in Orlando, I asked the employees about the path they took in college. Surprisingly, many of them had degrees in psychology. There is also a two year period where a zoo keeper is trained through a “fairly extensive… academic course,” said a keeper named Daniel Simmonds in an interview. (The link for this interview is at the bottom).

Another discovery that I learned from the vet at the local animal clinic is that you should get as much experience working with animals as you can. While an education is grand idea and shouldn’t be forgotten, many employers want to know that you are capable of doing the job by looking into your past. Simmonds also mentioned that volunteering your time at the zoo or a veterinarian clinic is a great way to get experience, however, most zoos require you to be at least 18 years old before you can work there. This is because it is a high-risk job. Later in the interview with Daniel Simmonds, he admits that “there would be a chance of being killed” by the wild animals. Nor can you choose which animals you want to work with. Zoos want employees to be able to switch off jobs with other keepers and take on different sections.

Here is the link for the interview with zookeeper Daniel Simmonds:  http://www.videojug.com/interview/being-a-zoo-keeper-2

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