The most dangerous phrase in the language is, "We've always done it this way."
- Grace Hopper
A while back, I wrote a post – my most popular so far – called “The Ten Things I Never Want to Hear from Zoo Visitors Again.” It made the rounds on the internet and the Facebook groups, and inspired a lot of comments and proposed additions. Based on that success, I decided I was going to write a sequel devoted to my coworkers (past, present, and, I’m predicting, future) – the things I never want to hear from them again.
There were a lot of things I’ve had colleagues say over the years that I’d just as soon never hear again. “I thought you were taking care of the [insert animal] today?” “It’s okay, I know [insert animal] are dangerous, but he/she likes me!” (usually preceding a bite or mauling), and “But it’s cold/hot/gross!” (you only hear this one from the new keepers, generally speaking – it thins the ranks). After careful consideration, however, I decided that there was only one thing that I constantly heard from colleagues that I was tired of. In a sense, it’s the phrase that holds our profession back the most and is the source of most, if not all, of our problems.
“Well that’s the way we’ve always done it…”
I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. If there is a formula that works very well, there’s no harm in sticking with it. Both animals and staff respond well to routine, and it makes mistakes less likely. At the same time, however, there are plenty of things which do NOT work well. Likewise, we’ll never know if things that work okay now can work better unless we try other methods out. Besides if the keepers who talk about how “they’ve always done it” always did things the way they were when they started in the profession, nothing would ever change for the better.
A few examples….
“We’ve always…” kept all cats in a zoo confined to one areas. Never mind that some species – cheetahs, clouded leopards, and the smaller cats – wound up being extremely stressed by the proximity to the bigger cats, to the point where it suppressed reproduction and impacted their health.
“We’ve always…” fed maned wolves a meat-based diet. I mean, they’re wolves, right? It turns out, maned wolves are heavily omnivorous, with plants making up a big part of their diet. Instead, we were causing kidney problems due to excessive protein.
“We’ve always…” gone in with zebras, and put them in mixed species exhibits. In the wild zebras are found with all sorts of other herbivores, and they look like pretty striped ponies, so what’s the harm? Turns out, male zebras can be extremely aggressive, both to smaller herbivores (most zoos that display zebras in mixed-exhibits pair them up with larger species) and to keepers (they used to be one of the leading causes of death to zookeepers).
“We’ve always…” fed snakes live prey. A lot of zoo visitors are surprised when I tell them that most snakes will readily take pre-killed prey. It turns out, it’s not unusual for a rat or mouse, confronted with a snake, to decide to go out with a blaze of glory and attack the reptile. A lot of snakes have been badly injured or killed this way.
“We’ve always…” moved animals with nets and lassos. Sometimes that’s the way you have to do it. In other cases, however, it’s amazing what a little training, combined with clever facility design, can do. Among other things, it reduces the likelihood of animals being injured during capture.
Come to think of it, “we’ve always” got all of our animals from the wild, kept them in concrete and tile boxes, watched them live brief, miserable lives, and had them cared for by uneducated and untrained roustabouts.
These examples are all a bit over the top. They’re meant to be. The point is, every time in the past that a keeper looked around, saw something that wasn’t working or could be done better, and suggested a change, I’m sure they were told you-know-what. Sometimes (most of the time, I suspect) there is a reason that it was always done that way. Maybe it really does work after all. Maybe other methods were tried and found unsuccessful. That’s fine. That’s still a better reason than “Well that’s the way we’ve always done it…”
That doesn’t mean it’s the way we always have to do it, though.