Perhaps the nearest I ever came to being killed (by a zoo animal, anyway), occurred one day when I was cleaning a bear enclosure. One minute I was raking away, the next I turned around and saw Louis, a full grown American black bear, lumbering towards me good-naturedly. I swear, I was outside the exhibit with the door locked (but minus my rake and shovel, which I had to retrieve later) before I even processed what had happened. I immediately began to worry, had I been so absent-minded that I had walked in with a bear without even thinking?
Turns out, no. I've done some dumb things, but this one at least wasn't on me. It turns out Louis had perfected the art of lifting the door to his shift area. I only found this out after talking to a keeper who had had this same near-miss experience; like me, he’d thought that he’d just forgotten to shift the bear out. The next day, I did an experiment: Louis was shut into his holding area and some fresh apples were placed outside, in his exhibit. I’d barely made it to the exit before be tossed the chain-link gate up and sauntered out for a snack.
It was an easy enough fix – a small piece of chain was enough to secure the gate closed safely for the future. Still, we never would have figured it out if we hadn’t talked about it. The next keeper Louis walked in on might not have been lucky.
Despite all of the schooling and training and internships and collective lore from generations of keepers past, an amazing amount of zookeeping still comes down to trial and error… with an emphasis on the “error” part.
A former employer of mine – one of the most “old school, always done it this way” guys I’ve ever met – had an adage he used a lot. Sure, he was intolerant of many things, but one thing he was always surprisingly accommodating of was mistakes. Even serious ones, for all of his bluff and bluster, he’d usually forgive. Each time, he’d pull the offender aside, read them the riot act for what they did wrong, and then end with – “It’s not a mistake if you learn from it.”
It’s true for animal escapes – every escape should end with a meeting, maybe a day or two later so everyone has time to reflect – to discuss how it happened and what could be done better next time. How to prevent the animal from escaping in the first place, how to communicate better, how to more effectively recapture it, how to deal with the public. The same could be said about animal deaths, keeper injuries, or other workplace misfortunes.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, stuff will occasionally go wrong at work. There’s no avoiding it. If it’s not a big disaster, it’ll at least be a little one. It happens. What can’t be allowed to happen, however, is to let those experiences go to waste. Even the worst crisis can become, in retrospect, a teaching moment.