Hello to my fellow zoobies, trainers, and readers! This week was a great one; it was full of summer heat, humidity, and micromanagement. I spent some time with my parents and, being avid Lutherans, they hosted a spaghetti dinner at their house for the congregation. While I’m dutifully helping my mother clean and set tables I had “The Walking Dead” marathon running in my old room. Regretfully, I forgot to turn it off and after several folks came out from using the bathroom in that room looking a little queasy I went to investigate. Whoops! That’s me, terrifying elderly Lutherans since 1976. Hope your week (and Sunday spaghetti dinner) went a little better than theirs.
And now, we are off with the third and FINAL installment (sorry kids, no more submissions because this has to end at some point) of “If Zoological Teamss Were Televisions Shows, They Would Be…”!
Methodical, patient, and playful at times but will lash out if need be. If you can’t get yourself “in line” a Carn Keeper will get you “in line”… fast. I spent a good portion of my early twenties hanging with bikers and SoA is one of my favorite shows. There is some great humor born of some pretty awkward situations but it can be hard core when necessary. That’s the parallel to Carn keepers. Do you know the joy of watching guests on surveillance cameras getting sprayed by a tiger? Or watching them fall on their ass as part of an involuntary response (like blinking) to a lion leaping toward the acrylic barrier? So sick but so freakin’ funny. However, you have to be able to laugh and then shift back to work mode pretty quickly. Seriously, zoo guests… how did you NOT know a golden shower was headed your way when the cat turned around and lifted its tail. Nothing good can come from that sort of preparation! It is an axiomatic truth that Big Cat keepers are the lion or tigress inside. They are loyal, intelligent, and spirited…but watch that back hand.
** Also, if there is a Carn Keeper out there that looks like Charlie Hunnam then CALL ME!
Education would be… Multiple shows
Education is simply too diverse to be encompassed by one show. There are different factions within that have created subcultures; they have different goals and approaches to their tasks. So within Education you have..
This is the faction that has joined Education in hopes of being hired into the zoological department of their dreams. It doesn’t make them any less of an educator, they are passionate like the lifers but have a different “bigger picture”. Every day is an audition, every hand shake an opportunity. All scenarios are filed away for potential interview answers and they are sponges for information.
This faction is made up of the “Lifers”, the ones who live for the education department and run the camps as well. They LOVE being educators and truly are the ones making a difference with our younger generations. The Ed department I worked with in Tampa never failed to impress me with their dedication to the kids. They spent hours designing programs, bickering, conjuring up creative ways to inspire, more bickering, dealing with crabby parents during rain delays, please stop bickering, and toiling over annual accreditations. So many personalities, so many shenanigans.
If there was a show that could possibly encompass Education then it would be Big Bang. Just like Aquarists, Educators are required to know pretty much everything. An impossible goal but one the guests expect us to achieve nonetheless. We not only have to know about all the species of animals housed in our facilities (we staff the exhibits) but all safety protocols, fire exits, bathrooms, the history of the facility, locations of eateries and smoking sections, what time shows are, where their car is, where their child is, and why their sunscreen is running into their eyes. Also, Holy Hell! Do Educators love Sci-Fi, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and cosplay. Conversations among educators will bounce from the juvenile to environmental biology to sarcasm in minutes. Anyone wanna play “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock”?
It’s all about the family. You may notice that keepers of Class 1 animals have TV shows with a bit of a darker edge to them. Not because they are morbid but because there is a level of responsibility to their positions that others don’t quite reach. “Class 1” is a term given to certain animals by the government, typically large carnivores and gigantic megafauna. This classification carries endless rules and regulations, tedious but necessary safety protocols, and is under the largest scrutiny by the USDA and other federal organizations. Working under those constrictions will bring you together as a unit whether you want to or not. There can be temper flare ups, shows of dominance, and maybe some territorialism. However, in the end they are a protective and tight family unit. Elephant keepers also take great joy in the relationships their animals cultivate with one another and with their care takers. Spats within the family? Fuhgeddaboudit! An outsider coming in with some lip and causing problems? Cement shoes.
Our swing shift at work refers to themselves as “The Vampires” but I see the “Entourage” dynamic within their teams. Just like Education, this is typically a shift filled with those working their way to a full time keeper or trainer job in the daylight hours. It exposes them to animal care at the foundation of the department by gifting them the joys of our laundry, counting vitamins, washing buckets, compiling records and respiration counts (counting how many times an animal breathes in a 5 minute period at set intervals), and then more laundry. They are all aiming higher and when one makes it to their goal? They are always there for their former team; their compadres from the overnight shifts. They put in “good words” and set up “chance” meetings so that their friends can get some exposure. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you leave your old friends behind, just like Vince and his buddies from Queens.
Disclaimer: This piece is not comparing primates or their keepers to zombies. This is not a statement on zombies of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, zombies are kind of awesome but that’s not where I am going with this. Put down the crossbow.
I spent one afternoon with primate keepers back in the day and the first 10 minutes reminded me of a verbal transaction that takes place in TWD quite often; the 3 questions that Rick asks a potential new member of the group. In a primate area they would be,
“How many times in the past have you failed to check a lock?”
“How many times were locks left unlocked because of your failure, resulting in a safety hazard and compromised or open enclosure?”
If your answer for either of these questions was anything but “never”, the last question is, “Why are you still here. NEXT.”
Working with Class 1 animals carries an enormous amount of responsibility. These are large and powerful animals that have the instincts to protect their territories and are naturally physical for communication. Humans truly are the porcelain dolls of the zoological world; we are no longer made for that type of interaction with anything. Don’t believe me? Check out the ridiculous amount of litigation tying up our courts for petty fights and minor accidents. Through thousands of years of relaxed selection and evolution (intellectually and physically) we have phased ourselves out of the hand-to-hand combat stage in order to survive and communicate on a day to day basis; now we use the internet, currency, and the middle finger. However, one good playful swat from a Class 1 animal and you’re done. Since safety in critical in this department you have high expectations of your coworkers. Primate keepers bond like family (just like the group in TWD) and outsiders (newbies) have to prove themselves. You are dependent on each other to get it right, every time, and to always have each other’s back. That level of trust takes time to build and once you are there you have friends for life… or at least until you are bitten by a zombie.
I grew up on this show and when I think of the sunny dispositions of the dog trainers I know, this show immediately came to mind. Happy Days was rooted in a genre that was a simpler time, a time when things had innocence we lack now. Be honest with yourself, what gives you the warm fuzzies faster than a fur baby with a happy romp? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing. Dog trainers are wildly technical (I am NOT talking to you, Cesar Millan, you phony) and a lot of them worked for zoological facilities back in the day. They have an ease and kindness in their air that is reminiscent of Happy Days and the beloved Cunningham family. They train dogs a rainbow of behaviors from extinguishing a neurotic licking behavior to bomb sniffing. If we truly gravitate to our “spirit animals” in our work then that should tell you what dog trainers possess at their core. They have hearts of gold.
“Woe” is the battle-scarred leadership team that carries the weight on their shoulders of an entire team, or even an entire facility. I spent just over four years as an assistant curator and there were days when I dragged home, sat down and genuinely asked myself, “What the hell did I get myself into when I agreed to take this position? Can I handle this?” I thought I was ready for the responsibility, I really did. Now, I look back at myself in the beginning and I was like a 15 year old girl on Dr. Phil that thought she was totes ready for a baby. In the end, I think I did a good job but I was nowhere near prepared for that level of accountability and there was no other way to prepare for it than being a senior for years. I was as ready as anyone could be. Not only are your sups responsible for the care and plans for your animals, they are usually answering to people that can be pretty far removed from the biological side. You basically have to give a crash course every single time as to why funding for that motor needs to be approved or why quarantine is so important. Then, once you jump all the hoops it is time to rally your team (of strong personalities) and implement it. They will have their own thoughts and opinions and somehow you have to marry that with the agreed upon plans made with your CEO’s, all without squashing the passion and enthusiasm of your employees. Tack on endless labyrinth that is employee schedules and payroll (WTF do you mean you didn’t punch out for lunch this entire week, Suzy?) and you have bought yourself a good old-fashioned ulcer. The cherry on the sundae? Our endless gripes; it’s a revolving door of, “Jane totally didn’t stuff vitamins again this morning and I had to do it all by myself” or “Dan didn’t mop the floor with me this morning, he just cleaned windows and did something else.” I’ve done it myself but I can guarantee I am now much more selective with what I bring to my sups. So, the next time your supervisor gives you the Al Bundy “Shoot me now” look that means that they have already hit their absolute threshold for the day. Maybe for the week. Or month. Maybe check after the new year.
Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!
Yup, you’ve got it! It’s the hour-long verbal boxing match that shows us the most diverse rainbow of personalities from one end of the spectrum to the other. However, it’s not the physical altercations that bring me to this comparison. It’s the passion. We are all deeply, hopelessly passionate about what we do in zoo and that can lead to some pretty intense moments. Again, not physical (we can get fired for those shenanigans) but sometimes you can cut the tension with a knife. There are a lot, A LOT of “alpha” personalities in zoo departments because it is the alphas that can endure the gauntlet we have to run to even get these jobs. They’ve withstood countless volunteer or unpaid internship hours, endless condescension from higher ups and more experienced coworkers, being handed the crappiest of tasks and hours, and the ulcers from trying to financially survive while hanging on to the bigger picture. Now that you have an inkling of the granite a zoo worker is made of, put about a dozen of those personalities in a room together to discuss a long term behavioral plan and how it’s best to achieve it. Cue the fireworks! We care to the point of being consumed by it at times because these animals deserve nothing less than our best, at all times, and we worked hard for years for that honor. Because that’s what it is, it’s a profound responsibility and a great honor. We take it very seriously and that can inspire some pretty wild moments behind the scenes.
So in the end, I hope I have made you smile with the comparisons. All of these shows are programs that I have enjoyed personally over the years and intended them as compliments. Almost all of the shows chosen have a family unit at their core and that was no accident. Every department deserves a compliment because we can’t do it without each other, especially Security. I’m not pulling out those people that are having sex in the bushes during the night programs so get on that Security! We fight, we tattle (*cough* Education…), we laugh endlessly, we gossip, we sweat buckets, and we donate pints of blood to our local mosquito populations. We worry, we have stress dreams, we rejoice, and we mourn.
I’m proud to stand next to each and every single one of you and THANK YOU. Thank you for all that you do and don’t lose sight of how important our jobs are at the end of the day. We have taken a lot of cheap shots lately from faceless strangers that have never taken one moment to talk to us, let alone hear us or the stories of the animals we care for. As my momma says, “If your mouth is open, your ears are closed.” Take comfort in your team. Know that there are many of us all over the world and if there is anything that these comparisons have shown it’s that we are family; we endure and we do it with a sense of humor. Why? Because you gotta keep your head up (oohhh) but you can let your hair down (yeeaaa). Keep your head up.
Thank you for reading and instead of my usual “Hugs and Fishes” I leave you with the wise words of the divine Jerry Springer…
“Until next time, take care of yourself… and each other.”