You Know You’re a Trainer or Zookeeper When… (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered how to identify yourself as an animal trainer, zoo keeper, or animal care specialist?  If you are new to the field, would you like to know if you have fully embraced the world that is zoological operations?  Well, fret no more my fellow compatriots!  Here is a list of just a few characteristics of a tried and true animal care professional.  If this sounds like you, believe that you have been fully absorbed by the zoo life.  Whoever you were before your career has long since faded away to reveal the smelly, sleep-deprived rockstar you are today.  If you are new to the field then here is a small glimpse of what your future holds, young grasshoppers.

  1. You can rock a pair of Dickies®, paired with the most hideous button up uniform shirt, with legitimate swagger .  One of the major drawbacks to being a zookeeper, and a trainer when out of the wetsuit, is the uniform.  They are all pretty standard and they ALL include the dreaded, vile khaki Dickies shorts. Dickies are tough and that’s why department heads like them.  You can pour gasoline on them and light them up, torch them like a corpse on Game of Thrones, and not a single thread will be out of place.  However, they rival “Mom Jeans” with their high waist, which is cinched in tight enough to burst your spleen, only to blossom out into the widest ass and legs you have ever seen.  To add insult to injury, there are pleats.  PLEATS!  We aren’t at work to be pretty or handsome and uniforms help our guests identify us, we understand why we wear them.  That being said, did I mention these shorts go all the way to our mid-knee?  Or how friggin’ hot they are?  I’m fairly confident there is a wool blanket woven into each pair.  After you get over the initial revulsion of putting them on the first time, you resign yourself to them.  You get to work and forget the fact that you look like a victim of an epic Atomic Wedgie.  You strut around your facility like you are wearing the latest Paris fashions and why?  Because you cared for and trained Bengal tigers today, dammit!  You’ve earned that stride, just like John Travolta in the opening of Saturday Night Fever.  Go on and work it.  You are that awesome.
    Mom Jeans: The inspiration for zoological uniforms across the globe.
    Mom Jeans: The inspiration for zoological uniforms across the globe.

    2.  You can be overzealous concerning the proper use of biology terms and won’t hesitate to correct those around you, even when you aren’t at work.  This one probably doesn’t win us a lot of points with family or friends.  No one likes to be corrected publicly and sometimes we forget that it isn’t vital that you say “pup” instead of “baby” when we drag you into a conversation about sharks.  For us, it is a vital component of our jobs and it can be hard to separate our diligence at work from the dinner table.  So, forgive us if you say “born” and we immediately stop you and say, “No, you meant to say ‘hatched.’”  We aren’t trying to be total choads, we just can’t turn it off sometimes.  While we are on the subject, may I please tell you why you meant to say “flipper” and not “fin”?  You’re just so wrong.

    Sigh... sad, but true.
    Sigh… sad, but true.

    3.  You aren’t scared to eat food with pharmaceuticals all over your hands or anywhere around your food.  True story, we eat and breathe chemicals like it’s not even a thing.  One of many times during my senior aquarist years, I was in the midst of a trying day and I found myself having missed lunch.  Again.  One of my co-workers had kindly run off to grab us a couple of sandwiches from a nearby deli and brought them to the lab for us to scarf down.  An hour lunch, you say?  Ain’t nobody got time for that, especially when you have 4 hours of work left to do and 2 hours to do it because overtime isn’t approved.  I was in the midst of weighing out Praziquantel treatments for the next day to get us ready for the morning and had made quite a mess. Prazi looks a lot like cocaine… I mean, confectioner’s sugar… yea, sugar.  Sadly, I had managed to get it everywhere due to it being such a fine powder and it easily becomes airborne.  Simply opening a door and closing it nearby will send it flying; envision dropping a sack of flour.  My true blue co-worker hands me my sandwich and I eagerly noshed away, definitely ingesting several milligrams of Prazi while I was at it.  Whatever, at least now I know I don’t have intestinal worms. This is pretty much the norm in small facilities, we just don’t have the time or patience for MDS labels and safety shenanigans.  You dose out formalin next to your coffee and keep your lunch in the fridge next to the chloroquine.  Hell, we can’t afford health insurance anyway so it’s like getting preventative treatments just by being in the right place at the right time! Winning!


    4.  You consistently check padlocks with an obsessive nature.   No lock will go unchecked.  EVER.  Want to know how to keep a zookeeper busy for hours on end?  Place them in a hallway lined with lockers and locks on each one.  Even if they don’t need to check them (pulling on them to see if they are secure) they will; every single one.  Why?  Because they’ll toil all day and night that they just didn’t take a second to do it with each one and it’s not worth the headache.  Lock out/tag out is one of the most tried and true safety operations we have in zoo.  Securing your gates can mean the difference between sleeping soundly that night or chewing your fingers to the bone worrying you’ll find an orangutan playing on the computer the next morning or a herd of zebra congregating on the nearest interstate.  This need to check locks radiates out into your personal life and can earn you some strange looks.  No, it’s not a ritual and we don’t need meds.  It is a safety operation that is hardwired into us.  Zookeepers also do not get in a twist when their co-workers check the same lock they themselves just checked 15 seconds ago, even if the coworkers saw you do it.  We all suffer from the same compulsion seeking peace of mind and solidarity is key.

    We're not sick, we're methodical.
    We’re not sick, we’re methodical.

    5.  Your hands look several decades older than the rest of your body and you have the weirdest tan lines on the planet.  We take endless amounts of shit for our tan lines. Zookeepers look like they have on white socks and forgot to wash their necks for a few years.  Trainers have the Teva® tan on their feet, the other tan lines depend on whether they sport a shortie wetsuit or a full.  I always toughed it out in the heat in my full. I tan easily and preferred to have just my hands and feet look strange (like brown gloves) instead of half my arms and legs looking like they were spray painted.  Those shortie tans, whew!  You end up looking like a parfait, there are so many layers of color.  Either way, we ALL have hands that have aged far more rapidly than the rest of us.  Between the sun exposure, bleach, hard labor, and overall abuse our hands take they don’t typically hold up well.  If your hands haven’t started to degrade yet, zoobie newbies, buckle up.  They are collateral damage but may earn you access to the Early Bird Specials at your local Bob Evans restaurant.

    Case Study 2:  Trainer
    Case Study 2: Trainer
    Case Study 1:  Zookeeper
    Case Study 1: Zookeeper

    I have decided to split this list of stereotypical behaviors, precursors, and physical aesthetics of animal care specialists into two parts.  I don’t want to overwhelm those that are just digesting the realization that they have crossed over to “The Zoo Side”. {{Mwuah-ha-ha}}  However, have no worries!  These indicators show how hard we work, how dedicated we are, and serve as physical evidence of our daily efforts.  Be proud, be very proud.

     “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Thomas Edison

    Until next time, folks (and Part 2 of “You Know You’re a Trainer or Zookeeper When…”).

    Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll!


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