Want to know an animal care specialist’s favorite animal?
Look no further than their wardrobe and home decor.
Even the general public has enthusiasm for their favorite animals. Socks, shirts, necklaces, earrings… you name it, you can probably find your most beloved critter on it. However, you will be hard pressed to match the dedication of a zoological employee for finding these items. We become bloodhounds with the vision of an eagle. Money is no object, even if the rent is due that week. Once we spot our beloved item in the store, shaped in the form of a penguin (or giraffe, sloth, zebra…), we develop tunnel vision. We reach a critical level of anxiety that can only be abated by having said item in our hands.
Where it is safe.
Where we have established preliminary possession.
It’s not yours. Don’t touch it. Don’t look at it.
I will use myself as proof for this claim. What’s my favorite animal? The shark. I have fervently (and sometimes drunkenly) championed the importance of the shark species to “special” people who feel that the only good shark is a dead shark.
Fools. Why anyone would beg to be throat punched for uttering such a statement is beyond me.
Anyway, my healthy obsession with sharks has also influenced those close to me to think of me when they uncover rare shark paraphernalia. They excitedly text me pictures of shark sheets, shark slippers, and shark backpacks. I have my own personal army out there every day that unwittingly assists me with collecting all things elasmobranch.
And I love every single second of it!
As you can see, the item doesn’t always have to be a real time representation of our favorite fauna, although we are all aficionados of nature photos. It can be cartoony, abstract, and completely impractical. It doesn’t matter. When we spot that t-shirt of the sloth a riding comet? Look out! We will straight up shank you for it. You’ve been warned.
We will also gladly, and proudly, wear these items in public with zero shame and an expert level of comfort.
We are also addicts of subtle objects, things that are a tad more understated than a head to toe shark suit. We all own little items that betray our borderline clinical fixations with a particular animal, but these accessories are a smidgen harder to spot.
This is my personal favorite in my “shark stable”.
However, our love runs deep and the real thing must be represented somewhere. We have teeth, bones, hair, feathers, and any other biological gems you can think of to represent our beloved spirit animal. As professional animal care folks, we have a unique access to things we think are treasures that others would describe as a “biohazards”. One of my former colleagues had a collection of castings* from our hawk.
Biohazards aside, professional photographs of our chosen animals in their most blissful state of being is the crown jewel of any animal care specialist’s home décor. It is a must and not just any photo will do. Usually, it is either a visual that is on our bucket list to see (for example, The Great Migration) or something beautiful enough to encapsulate the spirit our beloved animal.
When I found this trio of photos of a Great White shark, I practically went to my knees at the art festival.
So, if you have an animal care professional in your life you now have the key to their happiness. If your mate or bestie is having a day, or maybe they just plain NEED that item in their life? Get it. Like, now.
They won’t care if it is practical, pretty, tacky, or expensive. If they are employed as a dolphin trainer but completely infatuated with the slow loris? Initiate “Operation Loris Hunt” and find that trainer a phone case with a damn slow loris!
They will be so appreciative and overcome with emotion that they will probably name their first child after you.
And, if that zoo professional is me? You can trust and believe that I will enjoy that shark accessory with some wine.
Until next time, keep your eyes open for that perfectly ridiculous animal gear that you can’t live without.
Hugs and Fishes, y’all!
*For all you non-zoo folks, a casting is a pellet a bird regurgitates that is comprised of undigested parts like feathers, bones, and other funsies.
Are you still unconvinced that you are a tried and true zoo professional, even though your tan lines tell a different story? Would you like to know a few more distinctive features so you can spot an animal care pro in your midst? Use this field guide to see if you can spot us in our natural habitats. When you do, remember not to make any sudden movements and always reinforce us for being calm and attentive. So, buckle up and here we go with Part 2 of “You Know You’re a Trainer or Zookeeper When…”
6.Your lunch conversations with your coworkers would blow most people’s minds, at the very least give them whiplash. Some of my favorite and most interesting conversations have been with my coworkers when we were able to congregate together at lunch time. It’s not something that happens terribly often in small facilities but in larger zoos and aquariums you will usually have people to eat with. When you work for a small zoo or aquarium you are usually lunching alone, there is simply not enough staff available to take your lunches at the same time. But, when we can get together it’s like the SyFy channel, History Channel, National Geographic, and the E! Channel joined hands for a spirit circle. We also change subjects at lightning speed, it begins to feel like a word association challenge. Discussions can begin with a coworker stating, “So, I tried to explain the difference between an adaptation and an exaptation to a guest today.” This is the catalyst that creates a verbal Hiroshima, an explosion of tangents.
“Evolutionary bio was my fave class in college. Evo-Devo, baby… Mimicry! So freakin’ cool, but do not confuse that with mimic behaviors.”
“Seriously, I hate it when people (us) do that. Don’t you miss the mimes at the shows? Me too.”
“Oooohh! Did you see that show “Cosmos” the other night? That show is everything and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is boss! Loved Carl Sagan but he always kinda reminded me of an emu.”
“Speaking of ratides, do they have chicken fingers in the cafeteria today?”
“ You know feathers are adapted for warmth, flight is the exaptation. Speaking of our feathered friends, I saw the marabou storks building a nest on the veldt earlier. So awesome.”
“Omg, I totally wove in how the loss of herbivorous megafauna is affecting climate change on my tour of the veldt today. Score! Did you say there were or weren’t chicken fingers in the cafeteria today?”
“I will walk to the cafeteria with you, I’ve gotta get more steps in to meet my goal on my FitBit®.”
That’s all before you can get your food out of the microwave. Welcome to lunch at the zoo.
7.We have the best photos and videos on our phones. Ever. Don’t even try to compete. However, we really have to feel comfortable to show them to you because they are contraband. We aren’t supposed to take unapproved pictures with the animals behind the scenes but we all do it. Management knows we do it and typically turns a blind eye unless you do something stupid. For example, clearly violating a safety standards while taking said pictures and then publishing them on social media… and you are friends with your supervisors on Facebook. Darwinism also applies to the survival of your career; make good choices, people. That being said we get to see all the wonderful moments that happen by chance. That moment the female penguin chooses one of the three nests that three different males made for her, selecting her probable monogamous mate. It’s like “The Bachelorette” for aquatic birds, no roses just capelin. Or when a 3000 lb. rhino rolls almost all the way over on its back in the mud wallow and you see its bagel-sized belly button. We see when the orangutan packs up all her hay from the night before, along with her EED’s (toys), and drags it all out to the play yard like a child pulls its wagon. We caught the first moment the newborn sea lion pup took a peek at its surroundings. We have wonderful opportunities to capture these moments and, if we trust you, we will share them with you. Hell, after a couple of cocktails I’m more than happy to show the videos I took on my phone of a male seahorse giving birth (yes, the male) or feeding the juvenile cuttlefish. Be forewarned, there is a caveat. Each video and picture will come with a wildly detailed story so get comfortable. Interpretation is a large part of our jobs and we want you to feel like you were there, we’ll insist on it.
8. We can recognize each other, and our animals, from an astounding distance away. We all have a tendency to look the same because of uniforms (See #1 from Part 1 of this series). We have to rely on other ways to identify each other than the sounds of a voice or facial recognition. Imagine over 50 women, each in the same exact wetsuit, hat/visor/sunglasses, and shoes. Hair color and length helps but that only slices your possibilities by a fraction, even less if who you are looking for is blond. At some point, most of us are blond-ish. I am a dark brunette naturally but I’m in the sun so much my hair has lightened up dramatically. The way someone walks, their posture, the way they talk with their hands or tend to tug on their hair; these are all tells and remember! We are behavioral ninjas with a black belt in observational study. These little tics or physical signs enable us to tell who someone is from a couple hundred yards away. We are the same with the animals in our care. We can deduce who they are watching by their behaviors, identifying individuals by who they are with and what area they are hanging out in (they have preferences on both). For instance, there are 4 dolphins in the front pool and someone asks who is out front. “Well, that gigantic dark dorsal is Sparky, so the two females are Laverne and Shirley. We only have a handful of large females that pair up and L and S are almost always in perfect sync. They are also typically paired close to Sparky. That one playing in the shallows is Calico, she is constantly sliding out and playing in that area. The trainer out there is Kacy, you can tell by that distinctive walk. She lumbers like Frankenstein.” Did you know that giraffe can see for miles? Animal care professionals aren’t quite that talented but maybe, just maybe, our heightened senses will lead to a genetic mutation… X-Men style. Maybe our vision will become naturally polarized as well, it would save us a ton of money on expensive sunglasses. I can dream! Until then, I know that is my coworker Sherry all the way over on the other side of the beach because she has a Jennifer Lopez booty.
9.You’ve accumulated a crazy collection of name tags. No joke, I have over a dozen and that is just from my zoological career. Your park has night events? New name tag design. You are changing your uniform colors? New name tag issued. You got promoted? Another name tag to pick up at wardrobe. You help out regularly in different departments or areas? Guess what! Name tag. Even when you are a trainer, and not allowed to wear a name tag for fear of losing it in the pool, you are still issued one. Then, the ONE day in the last six months that you need it you aren’t able to find it. Back to wardrobe to get another one, off you go. After a few years they start randomly cropping up in your glove compartment, pockets of pants from last winter, purses, and in between couch cushions. When you are drowning in a tsunami of hard plastic, laser printed name tags with a tropical theme you know you have reached a milestone in your career. You now have a physical timeline of your progression through departments. I am thinking of doing a shadow box project I saw on Pinterest to show mine off. What could go wrong? Two words: Pinterest Fail.
We are now to the final clue. What’s the ULTIMATE method to identifying a trainer or a zookeeper? This one is infallible, the most concrete peer-reviewed evidence and observation available to date. Are you ready for it?!
10. You have a cast iron stomach with every fluid, smell, texture, and taste… with one exception. Motion sickness is a myth. You scoff at nausea, scenarios that inspire Exorcist-style projectile vomiting in the average human are child’s play. You are impervious, except to one single item. It brings your most hardened animal care professional to their knees. It sends grown women gasping and gagging into the corner to curl up in the fetal position. What is this heinous kryptonite?
Sweet little 8 lb. Baby Jesus, we can not handle hair in any way. I’m not referring to fur and not to whiskers… I’m talking about human HAIR. If we are cleaning out skimmers in aquarium and there is hair? Instant screams. You go to shower after work and there is a glob of some stranger’s (or multiple stranger’s) hair in the drain? You puke in your mouth a little. You are doing an interaction and you see a hair floating in the pool? You would think Jaws was chasing us. We are not only disgusted by it but we are terrified of it. If we are married or living with a significant other, I guarantee you that the other is responsible for cleaning the drains of the house. We won’t do it, not on your life. Forget it, not doing it. NOPE. Nope nopity nope nope. Bye, Felicia.
So, that’s it. 10 ways to identify us if you happen to catch us out and about or to know if you have truly embraced the animal care culture. We are a fun breed, we love life and we love our jobs. We truly care about our responsibilities to these animals and about our roles in education, all at the expense of our bodies and gag reflexes. Don’t be afraid to talk to us, inside or outside of work. Just do me a favor and don’t give us too much flak for our tan lines. They are our version of tiger stripes, temporary tattoos representing our dedication. Besides, if you are nice to us we will show you the pictures on our phones and tell you great stories. However, we are still going to hold you to a high standard of using correct biology terms. So remember, it’s a dazzle of zebra and a smack of jellyfish.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next submission, it is already in the works!