I was pretty amused by the conversation I heard as I cleaned the alligator pool the other day. I was standing in the draining pool, the water level almost up the top of my rubber boots, when a family - mom, dad, kid - walked past the front of the exhibit.
Kid: Where are they?
Dad: They aren't in there.
Mom: Are you sure?
Kid: I don't see them?
Mom: Well, let's look.
Dad: Honey, do you really think he (being me) would be in there if the alligators were in there?
It was at this point that I coughed, slightly. They ignored me. I coughed a little louder. It was after I had their attention (probably thinking that I was about to choke to death) that I pointed out the two big alligators, basking at the edge of the pool.
Dad: Are you insane?
The truth is, I go in with our alligators every day. Same with eagles, same with bison, same with pythons. I've gone in with cheetahs and maned wolves, which hasn't concerned me at all. I've gone in with cassowaries, which has left me weak-kneed and addax, which have forced me to run for my life for the gate. One of the nastiest zoo animals I've ever worked with is a turkey, who proceeded to hand me my ass on a silver platter the one day I was foolish enough to venture into his domain without at least a rake for protection.
The animals that I feel comfortable with are often the ones that the visitors fear the most. Likewise, the animals that give me the willies are often ones that visitors find sweet and engaging. I know that a crocodile or an alligator can be a dangerous animal... if you don't know where it is, or are too close. When I see a gator basking in the sun twenty feet away from me, however, I feel no concern. On the other hand, visitors love otters - they think they are so playful, so entertaining, so amusing. And they are all that. But I know how excited and aggressive otters can get about feeding. I've seen ours bite a crab in half where I would need a knife and a mallet. And I've dreaded the thought of having those teeth connect on the inside of my thigh in a feeding frenzy.
Most zoos have special guidelines for which animals their keepers can work with directly and which they don't share space with. Sometimes they vary from zoo to zoo. At one facility I worked, my new coworkers were horrified to learn that, at my last job, I would clean the spider monkey exhibit with the monkeys still in there. That being said, those new colleagues had no objection to servicing an exhibit with a breeding pair of cranes, which I always considered a great way to get your eyeballs stabbed out. Sometimes, permission to work directly with an animal is based on the experience of the keeper. At one facility, I worked directly with our gray wolves, which the younger, less-experienced staff was barred from doing until they proved themselves.
There are some animals that no zookeeper should be working in an enclosure with. Big cats (cheetahs being the exception) head up this list. Bears and apes are also on it, and I would probably add baboons, macaques, and spotted hyenas as well. Pachyderms and large hoofstock also make the list also; there is still considerable controversy among elephant keepers about the merits of working free contact (sharing a space) or protected contact (directing from outside the enclosure) for their charges.
In all cases, there are probably exceptions which occur, based on circumstances, individuals, seasonality, and sex. I'll walk among female ostriches without batting an eye. I once spent half-an-hour lying on my back under a pick-up truck hiding from a savagely bad-tempered male ostrich. That male deer may be a big ol' sweetie-pie for most of the year... but during rut, he's lethal. The exhibit matters, too. I've worked in a safari park where zebra roamed freely about me. No chance of that happening in a smaller paddock; I seem to recall hearing too many horror stories from older keepers about colleagues kicked, bitten, or maimed.
Some visitors assume that, because they live in a zoo and are around people all day, our animals are pets and we can handle them as freely as they handle their cats or dogs. We can't. So how do we take care of the animals that we don't go in with? Big cats, bears, and other potentially dangerous animals are trained to shift. That is, they are taught to vacate their enclosure and enter a holding pen while the keepers service their enclosure. This might be where they are fed, or where they receive special treats; sometimes the enclosure itself is so large that it can be divided in half, and we take care of wherever the animal is not. Some of my biggest frustrations at work happen when I need, I mean, really need to enter an enclosure but am unable to because a dangerous animal is smugly refusing to shift.
Working with wild animals in a zoo setting can be dangerous, but it can be made much safer by being careful as to which animals you work with directly. I'm sure there are a lot of visitors who probably think I'm a lot less cool than they suspected at first when they learn that I don't actually get to pet the tigers or wrestle around with the polar bears.
They'd probably think I was a lot less cool if I did try it and my mangled corpse turned up in the exhibit the next morning.