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Saturday, August 2, 2014

But I Really DO Like Guests!

The other day, I was walking through the zoo with a fellow keeper when we detected the aura of cigarette smoke - a big "no-no" at our facility.  I spotted the offender, puffing away as he walked ahead of us, and jogged up ahead to talk with him.  After a few seconds of chatting, he laughed, ground out his cigarette, and strolled off, waving goodbye as he walked away. My coworker was flabbergasted.

"How did you do that?," she asked.  "They always yell at me or give me dirty looks when I tell them they can't smoke in here."

I told her the truth.  I'd informed the man (nicely) that smoking wasn't allowed in the zoo - I was afraid that the animals would see it and pick up the habit.  He thought it was, if not super funny, at least worth a chuckle, and the inherent silliness of the comment took the focus off of the fact that he was breaking the rules.

When I showed up for my first day of work at a zoo over 10 years ago, I was ready to shovel poop, make diets, and wrangle animals.  Instead, I watched a movie - a low quality VHS entitled "The Spirit of Hospitality."  Most days I can't remember what I had for breakfast by lunchtime (which is odd, considering I eat the same thing for breakfast everyday), but ten years plus later, I can still remember that video.  It was full of all sorts of little scenarios on how to act in order to make the best impression on your visitors.  See a guest looking at a map?  Walk up and ask if he needs help finding something.  See a mom getting ready to take a picture of her children?  Ask if she'd like you to take the picture so she can be in it with the kids.  Pick up trash whenever you see it - let visitors see that people are taking care of the facility and trying to keep it neat and safe, for them and for the animals.

I know, I know, a face like this is just begging to be fed... but please don't.

I tried explaining this concept to an unfortunately obstinate intern once.  In return for my philosophy, I got a look that suggested that I had three heads, none of which was in possession of a brain.  "If someone has a question I'll answer it, but I became a zookeeper because I don't like dealing with people," was her reply.  My initial instinct was to reply, "Well you aren't a zookeeper yet, are you... INTERN!", but I choked that down, deciding it was too mean.  Instead, I tried to reason some more.

We may not like to admit it, but in the eyes of the world (including some of our fiercest critics), zoos and aquariums are about entertainment.  Once we get them through the gates we can try to educate them and inspire them to care about the natural world, and we may use their money to fund conservation projects and breeding programs, but first we need to get them here and coming back, and that means making sure they have a good time.  That means learning to enforce rules without bullying people.  It means educating without belittling people.  It means helping people without acting like you are put upon.

None of this means that you have to be a doormat or let people do anything that poses a threat or a stressor to the animals.  I only ever yell at visitors (I mean, actually yell) under two circumstances:
  • If they are doing something extremely unsafe... like climbing over the barrier that separate them from a potential dangerous animal
  • If they are doing something inherently malicious... like rock-throwing or spitting
Outside of these scenarios, tact and patience solve most problems.  It's important to remember that a lot of our visitors don't have experience being around animals - what is common sense and second nature to us might not be to them.  Little kids might not be old enough to understand that chasing the free-roaming peacocks is scary for them, it needs to be taught to them.  If you have folks banging on the glass in your reptile house, don't just yell at them - explain to them why it's stressful for the animals to have their tanks banged upon (and then if you catch them doing it again, THEN you yell at them!).

"Go ahead, asshole... knock that glass one more time... I dare you..."

One of the most important skills that I've learned about interacting with the public is walking with my head up and eyes alert, making eye contact as I go through public areas.  If someone makes eye contact back, I smile and nod, maybe say a quick "Hello" or "Welcome."  Just doing this makes me more approachable to visitors, and might give a shy guest the opening they need to come up with a question or a concern.  We have a lot of geriatric animals at our zoo, some of which probably look a little funky to members of the public.  I'd rather have twenty people ask me about a limping animal everyday than have one person who went home convinced that the animal was hurt and we just didn't notice or didn't care.  Some of these casual, chance encounters with visitors that I've had on zoo grounds have netted us new docents or volunteers.

Ultimately, most of us in the profession started off as curious kids visiting the zoo or aquarium.  For many of us, our earliest exposure to animals came at the hands of a patient keeper who was willing to answer our questions... even the ones that to them may have seemed silly or obvious.  You never know how your conduct may impact that visitor.  It could convince them that the zoo is run by sullen, indifferent people who don't care about animals... or it could inspire them to help make a change towards protecting animals, in the zoo and in the wild.  

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