Ask the Zoo Educator

I know, I know – I’m not a rockstar like an actual zookeeper is…

But personally, I think I have the best job in the zoo. I know what zookeepers know, and do much of what they do… but no exhibit cleaning! Keepers have told me that sometimes they feel like glorified janitors.

So I’m a full-time teacher at a small AZA-accredited zoo. I work with both kids AND animals: I take our program animals to schools and the like for outreach programs, and write and teach camps and classes onsite at the zoo.

Our program animals aren’t on display in exhibits, we keep them separate for a couple of reasons (handleability, quarantine, ease of care/transport) and include some pretty awesome critters; among others, we have a Flemish giant rabbit, a peregrine falcon, an eclectus parrot, a bunch of hedgehogs and ferrets, a great horned owl, many snakes and lizards, and a pair of prehensile-tailed porcupines. These are the animals I know most about, as I spend most of my days talking about them, watching them, training them, etc.

Any questions for me?

Yes, I have a question: How do I get your job?

I’m kind of serious here. I have a background in teaching, outreach programs and writing, and have been thinking lately I’d like to do something involving animals.

Have you ever been bitten (by an animal, not a kid)?

Do the animals get to “know” you? Do they respond to their names?

When an animal dies, what do you do with its corpse?

For the meat-eating animals, where do you get their meat? Do you just go to the grocery store and buy beef, like the rest of us?

Do you drive from place to place with these exotic animals in crates in your back seat, or do you have special vehicles and cages? Have you ever been speeding down the highway, only to realize that the hissing cockroach has gotten loose and is walking across your lap?


Have you ever had to cross a river with a falcon, a giant rabbit, and a sack of grain in a rowboat that could only hold two of them at a time?

What’s so great about the horned owl?

When your students tick you off, do you fling your excrement at them?

What do you say to PETA types that say zoos are prisons and should be done away with?

I don’t believe this about zoos, but I heard some express this opinion, and I’d like to know how to respond.

Be in the right place at the right time, like any job :slight_smile:

My background is in informal education, and most of my experience has been in science museums. I think they kind of like that about me here, since my colleagues are all very zoo-ey; I can often give a different perspective. I have a science degree (lots of zool), a teaching qualification and a graduate degree in science communication. This last was an awesome hands-on course, the field work of which was running a touring outreach program in outback Australia.

The best way to get a foot in the door to work at a zoo is first to volunteer. Almost everyone in the zoo game starts off that way, and I believe it’s a requirement for all AZA zoos to have a docent or similar program, and will certainly immerse you in that particular institution’s way of working.

There are specific training courses for zookeepers (there’s one at Moorpark in southern Cal that I’m vaguely familiar with) - some zoo educators have started as keepers and moved over.

Zoo jobs are advertised on the AZA website. Another place to look is the in the wildlife rehabilitation field - centers often have educators who do similar things to zoo educators.

Good luck! It’s a great field to be in, very collaborative and supportive!

I’ve been bitten, sure. By kids, too! Our eclectus parrot can be bitey, we usually move him on a stick. Ferrets are nippy, especially the three month old kits we have currently - they play-bite like puppies, and need the same kind of training. The great horned owl clacks his beak at us sometimes, but he’s never actually tried to bite… he’s as much like a puppy dog as any owl has ever been.

Do they know us? Maybe a little. The owl can be particular in who he’ll work for… he likes me, they sometimes call me the Owl Whisperer :slight_smile: The falcon I’m still getting to know, she seems to have her favorites, and her anti-favorites too! The porcs like anyone with a peanut, the same with the parrot and a grape. Some know their names - our desert tortoise responds when called, as does the parrot.

After death, an animal is almost always necropsied to determine cause of death. Sometimes this happens onsite, but sometimes we send corpses to research facilities. If we have need for it, and the funding, we sometimes request an animal be mounted for program use. Taxidermy is expensive, and we don’t have unlimited space. We really value and respect the mounts that have come from our own collection - it’s a new life we’ve given the animals, so they can continue their role as ambassadors and educators.

Our carnivores mostly eat whole prey (mice, rats, rabbits, quail) which we buy pre-killed and frozen from zoo suppliers. We then thaw as needed. Pre-killed prey has lots of benefits for us and for the animals. We also provide bones for the big carnivores, which we usually get from the meat department of local supermarkets or butchers.

This is fun! Keep asking stuff!

Yep, crates in the back of the van. No-one’s ever gotten out, thank goodness. I did find a hisser in a cupboard once, but he was the only one, and just went back into the colony.

As an ex science museum staffer, I am familiar with the river of which you speak - thankfully, falcons eat only other birds, ours cannot fly, and the rabbit is far too large for her to hunt.

Great as in large, also, he’s just great. (See above re: puppydogness)

No poo flinging, although the kids do get very excited when they see some. “Everybody poops,” I deadpan. The holy trinity of kid humour: poo, bum, wee. Wow.

Are there any animals at your zoo that you’re afraid to go near?

It’s a tough one, which I fortunately don’t come across too often - the real zoo haters would never pay entrance to a zoo or for a program. More often, I get somewhat bewildered eight-year-olds asking me, if there are so few jaguars left in the wild, why don’t we take our jaguar to Costa Rica and let her go?

Nowadays, very few animals are ever taken from the wild to add to zoo collections, and never without a great deal of thought and planning involved. AZA administers population management and captive breeding programs for all endangered zoo animal species, and a lot of threatened or vulnerable species too. So zoos are populated by captive-bred individuals, most of which would be unable to survive in the wild. Ask any wildlife rehabilitator, habituated or imprinted animals can’t be released. If captive populations are specifically bred for release, they are treated very differently, having as little human contact as possible, and otherwise ensuring they gain the skills to survive on their own.

Personally, I see zoos as a great gateway into conservation education. By having a wonderful experience at a zoo, people are more likely to feel connected with nature, not just their native habitats and species, but worldwide.

Yes, and with good reason. Several of our animals are cared for by keepers using a method called protective contact, in which no people are ever in the same enclosure as the animal. For example, big cats are trained to use a shift cage - a door is opened remotely, letting them move from one enclosure to another, say from the exhibit (where the public can see him) to the night house, off exhibit. This way, the keeper can enter and maintain the exhibit with the cat locked safely inside.

Even more unlikely animals are cared for in this way, including peccaries (they’re NOT pigs!) and squirrel monkeys.

I’m not so afraid of any of them that I’d avoid their exhibits, or even behind the scenes of their exhibits, when the correct precautions are taken.

I was interested in your response as to whether they have or respond to names.

I’ve heard other exotic animal worker types say in very snooty tones of voice that doing so is “anthropomorphising” them. So, what’s your take on that?

Hee hee, it’s quite the long-running debate. Our zoo has several policies on animal naming, the main gist being that the name should be in some way educational, but not give the impression that our animals are pets. Personally, I think that’s a bit silly, especially since some of our species ARE kept as exotic pets. I think having a cute or disarming name, especially for a creature which sometimes elicits a fear response, can help guests see our animals as individuals, not some scary “other.”

Sometimes zoos won’t make animals names public; their presenters don’t introduce them by name. This is, I think, to reduce both the impression that they’re pets, and any possible anthropomorphism. Sometimes it’s done for training reasons: keepers or trainers will often use the animal’s name as an attention-getter before a cue is given, in which case, having the public yell “Hi Bob!” at your pangolin all day will somewhat dilute the efficacy!

Of all the animals you’ve worked with, which was your favorite? Which your least favorite? And why?
BTW… you pretty much have my dream job there…

I like to present any animal that has a great story, as it makes my job that much easier - if I become immersed in the telling of the story, the audience becomes immersed too. So the hissing cockroaches, while not exactly loveable, are really really great to work with, I have this whole spiel where the kids pretend to be lemurs and drop their fruit peels from the treetop, to where the cockroaches are waiting on the ground to do their decomposer dance. And we did have this awesome male with a broken antenna called Stumpy…

The owl, as mentioned, is pretty cool. He was a non-releasable rehab bird, shot in the wing by BB-gun weilding kids. That’s a great message for kids right there - you can have a huge impact on your local ecosystem, and your choices are what make that impact positive or negative.

I also love our humble box turtles; a turn of the century natural history author described them as “a most amiable reptile,” which is too true.

Least fave? We have a little CA mountain kingsnake who I actually haven’t handled yet - he’s still in training after being a lab snake for the first 9 years of his life. He’s QUICK, and has such a tiny black head, I just can’t bring myself to trust him yet. He also has an unpleasant habit of musking when handled (releasing an icky smell to mark territory) which I’m hoping he’ll get over!
I’m also allergic to rodent urine, which makes guinea pigs unpleasant for me to handle - the porcs aren’t so bad, since we wear big gloves when we work with them. We’re phasing guinea pigs out of our progam.

I was once shown behind the scenes at a zoo by a friend, and one thing I did was feed some bread to a rhino. (There were very large bars between us and the rhino, but with plenty of space to put your hand through.) The rhino ate a little of the bread – but then must have decided that it didn’t know me, and moved quickly back away from me. Perhaps I didn’t have the same smell as its regular keepers, but I’m sure that a lot of the mammals will recognise specific people, just as domestic cats and dogs do.

What will that mean for the guinea pigs you have now? Will you keep them until they die or send them to another zoo?

Also, this has been a fascinating thread. Thank you for taking the time to answer us!

Oh! Nothing so dramatic. We actually have a guinea pig exhibit in our children’s zoo. Currently it’s populated with only females (guinea pigs breed like rabbits!) and our program piggies are male… so we’ll neuter them and send them to live with the girls :slight_smile:

What a great job! I went to zoo camp once as a child and went backstage with the tigers - they are quite a bit bigger up close.

I just went back to the zoo for the first time in ages with my niece and nephews Sunday - I’d forgotten how awesome our zoo is! Now you’ve kind of got me wanting to volunteer.

Go for it!

Camp is fun, but tiring. I’m in the midst of writing my summer curriculums, jungles and junior vet camps, among others.