"Like the pine trees lining the winding road - I got a name, I've got a name,
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad - I got a name, I've got a name"
- Jim Croce, I Got a Name
When I was a young'un, just getting started in the keeper world, the zoo where I was volunteering had a litter of five cheetah cubs born. This was big news - the first in the zoo's history - and it made national papers, which in turn led to lots of correspondence for the zoo. Many of these letters that flooded in, besides congratulations, offered up naming suggestions for the cubs. When visiting the cheetah section one day, I saw one such letter taped to the refrigerator, suggesting the names Anita, Bonita, Clarita, Conchita, and Dorita (I don't know if anyone every told his person that cheetahs weren't from Latin America).
Anita and Bonita (or is it Clarita and Conchita?) frolicking in the leaves
It's a sad fact, but not all zoo animals get names. This is in part dependent upon what kind of animal we're talking about. If you have a flock of thirty flamingos, you probably won't name them all. You'll have a number for each of them, but a name, no - how would you tell who was who anyway (besides looking at their ID number, usually on a band around the leg)? For some animals managed as a group, there might not even be an individual number - just a group ID. Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates tend not to be named either, unless they are individuals who stand out for some reason. Well, in many cases; when I was a reptile keeper, I think I named just about every snake, lizard, and turtle I cared for, even if the name existed only in my mind and nowhere on paper.
Which raises a second point... names also come about depending on the keepers in question. I know plenty of old-time keepers who don't name animals... even primates, bears, and big cats, which in my opinion have way too much personality to just be a number, or "the female leopard." They say that it anthropomorphizes the animals, or sends "the wrong message" to the public that the animals are pets. They may have their own private house names for the animals, but would never tell a member of the public.
For a zoo's most famous, most charismatic animals, however, house names are common knowledge among the general public. How these animals get the names depends on circumstances. Most animal names come from the keepers. There may be a specific rhyme or reason to the names - at one zoo where I worked, babies were always given a name starting with the same letter as their mother to help keep track of family lines - or it may be something that the staff just likes the sound of. There's been an increasing trend of naming animals in the language of their origin country - another excellent reason to learn Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, or Portuguese.
Excerpt from the book My Life With Alice
I fear public naming contests. Seriously. I've heard the names that people come up with. "Barry"... the bear. "Ellie"... the elephant. Oh, and the black and spotted leopards? You guessed it - "Blackie" and "Spot". It would fine if this was from the kids, but really, the adults? Folks like this make our would-be cheetah namer sound like a fountain of originality. In an effort to reduce such tragic naming accidents (I can only imagine the possibility of an animal dying from shame after being saddled with a colossally stupid name), zoos have tended to rig naming contests... well, not "rig", but more like "limit the options to acceptable outcomes." Three or four suggested names will be made available for voting, all pre-screened by staff.
One bit of zoo etiquette - if you learn the house name of a zoo animal, treat it as a cool tidbit of knowledge. Don't feel the need to scream it at the animal over and over again at your next visit. He or she knows you aren't the keeper and they will... not... care. All you will do is annoy the animal, its exhibit mates, its keepers, and every person in a fifty yard radius.
The most complicated and ornate naming rituals are associated with the giant pandas (actually, the most complicated and ornate everything are usually associated with giant pandas). Panda cubs are, in the traditional Chinese fashion, given their name at a naming day celebration when they are 100 days old. Names are invariably Chinese in origin, carefully selected for each cub.
That's good... I'd hate to think of an animal as rare as a giant panda going through life with some of those names I've heard people suggest...
"I don't care HOW much money the donor has, we are NOT naming the panda Kevin!"