“They say that a child who aspires to be an engine driver very rarely grows up to fill that role in life. If this is so, then I am an exceptionally lucky person, for at the age of two I made up my mind quite firmly and unequivocally that the only thing I wanted to do was study animals. Nothing else interested me.”
Thus begins famous British zoologist Gerald Durrell’s A Bevy of Beasts, a memoir of the young Durrell’s apprenticeship/crash-course in zookeeping at the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade facility. I can relate to Durrell’s feelings on the subject – they're very similar to my own. Growing up, some of my classmates wanted to be firefighters, or doctors, or baseball players. I wanted to be a zookeeper. Unlike the vast majority of people that I went to school with, my childhood wish came true.
I often wind up having this conversation with people, either guests on zoo grounds or casual acquaintances to whom I am introduced. When you tell someone that you are an accountant or a cashier no one asks for a lengthy explanation as to how and why you wound up in that profession. Zookeeping is slightly different.
Some of the guests who I encounter ask me if this is my summer job (even in winter), or if I'm still in school. Others ask if I'm studying to be a vet. I sometimes feel that my answers fail to satisfy them: that they don't understand how anyone with a college degree would actively aspire to work in a job in which the daily routine largely consists of a shovel, a pile of fecal matter, and the application of the one to the other. A job which is known for its low pay, unforgiving schedule (animals don’t care if it’s Christmas morning), and sometimes brutal working conditions…
Other people have more romantic visions of the job. They think that it's a life of danger, every day narrowly escaping death at the claws of a big cat, the jaws of an alligator, or the fangs of a snake. Others see me as some sort of bargain-basement Dr. Doolittle, with a monkey perched on one shoulder and a parrot on the other, spending my days playing with animal friends. While there have been moments in my career where my life has been in danger, these occurrences are very few and far between. And while I truly do care for (dare I say love?) most of the animals that I work with, I’ve never fooled myself into thinking that they all loved me back.
I suppose I became a zookeeper, at least in the beginning, because I’ve been fascinated with wild animals and wanted to make them a part of my daily life. As the years have passed, however, so my feelings have changed as well. I still love the animals and value every day spent with them, but now the job means so much more to me. It’s a job unlike any other I could imagine – physically, mentally, and, at times, emotionally challenging. It’s a chance to educate people about a part of the world that they are losing touch with. It’s a chance to take a stand for conservation and do my part to save endangered species and their habitats. It’s a chance to save a little bit of the magic that we still have left in the world.
That’s what gets me out of bed and going to work every morning. That’s what gives me the drive to do the job and do it to the best of my abilities. That’s why I became a zookeeper.