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.

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