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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Genius of Zookeeping

When making the rounds on Facebook today, I came across these photos, posted by the Alaska SeaLife Center.  They depict a wonderful new method that their keepers are using to monitor the feet of the puffins under their care.  Captive puffins need to be monitored frequently for signs of bumblefoot - infection of the feet - but capturing and handling birds for examinations can be stressful for them.  Hence this beauty - a glass box with a mirror at the bottom.  The birds step up on the box, and the soles of their feet are reflected in the mirror for keepers to observe, all without touching the birds...


Occasionally, I've met visitors who are surprised by the amount of schooling zookeepers and aquarists require.  After all, don't we just shovel poop and make diets?  It turns out, brains are even more important than brawn in the field.  Part of it is schooling and book-learning, knowing as much as possible about the animals themselves - their anatomy, their behavior, their natural history, their nutritional needs.  A big part of it, however, has to do with the fact that zookeepers and aquarists are confronted, on a daily basis, with problems that no one else on earth has to deal with... often on a shoestring budget and with limited support.

As is seen with the puffins at Alaska, a lot of keeper ingenuity goes towards dealing with the day-to-day issues of animal care.  Other times, it goes towards training and enrichment, which has led to tremendous advances in both of those fields in recent years.  Why chase an animal around and risk injury to it (and you) when you can train it to enter a shipping crate and, in the case of some species, close the door behind itself?    How can an animal's behavior be directed in new, positive directions?  When keepers at the Phoenix Zoo, years ago, were confronted with Ruby, an African elephant who hated... well... everyone, they were initially at a loss.  Then they noticed that Ruby seemed to enjoy doodling in the dirt with a stick.  They outfitted her with elephant-sized paints and canvases and voila!  An artist was born, and Ruby became a much happier, better-adjusted animal.

Ingenuity also comes in handy during animal introductions, when injuries and accidents are most common.  Two examples that I've encountered?

Photos from Alaska SeaLife Center's Facebook page

  • Two capybara are to be introduced, though both have displayed aggression towards each other during past introduction attempts.  The attempted solution?  Let each animal roll around in the fecal matter of the other, masking their scent.  Soon, they won't recognize each other.
  • Two groups of spider monkeys are to be introduced.  At the exact moment of introduction, zoo staff place, outside the enclosure, a serval in a crate.  The monkeys are all so agitated by the appearance of   a predator that they don't notice the newcomers and unite in screaming and swearing at the cat (who, I must note, didn't seem too interested one way or another in the proceedings).
Problem solving skills are vital during captures and relocations, when escape is a likely outcome of failure.  In Gathering of Animals, Jeff Bridges tells the story of how keepers at the Bronx Zoo tried and failed to capture Silver King, a notoriously foul-tempered polar bear.  Finally, they used living bait - a playful young walrus wiggling safely out of reach so excited the bear that he ran head-long into his capture crate.  I once used a similar ploy on a condor with an egg fixation, getting him to follow me down a hallway by dangling a rhea egg in front of him.  We could have netted him, breaking his flight feathers and getting me bitten badly, but instead he followed like a lamb.  The bite came later.

Zookeepers are perpetually forced to think outside of the box by the unique situations that their jobs produce.  Sure, there is lots of protocol and training and workshop meetings these days, and antics like running a walrus through your polar bear exhibit are no longer considered practical.  Still, animals are unpredictable and prone to unusual, unexpected behaviors.  We need keepers who can, when the occasion arises, act the same way.

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