It wasn't my first time working cats. I knew that, and my trainer knew that. Still, it was a new zoo with new animals and new coworkers, and every set up is different. And so I was determined to keep my mouth shut and let my new teacher teach. As is often the case on a first day of training, the new hire (me, in this case) stood and watched while the trainer performed and explained the routine.
Things went fine during the tigers. They seemed to go fine with the cheetahs too. At least, that's what we thought... until we stepped back outside. In all of my new coworker's enthusiasm for explanation, it seemed that she forgot one minor detail. She'd let the two male cheetahs out into their outdoor enclosure... without closing the gate. We turned around just in time to see the two spotted boys strolling cautiously through the gate, taking in their new surroundings warily.
Another minute or it, it could have been worse. As it was, we were both able to calmly and quietly herd the cheetahs, pushing them back into their enclosure and shut the gate behind them. As soon as the lock was checked and double-checked, my new coworker dropped onto the ground in a heap of shaking panic.
We'd been lucky. Lucky there were two of us there to herd the cats in. Lucky that we'd seen what was going on when we did, before the cats had gone too far. Lucky that we both knew how to react in this situation. And, I couldn't help but think, lucky that it had been the cheetahs and not the tigers, or any other big cat.
Doubtlessly my colleague was grateful that we were able to clean this mess up quickly and quietly (which was probably a major breach of protocol). Her hands had been on the levers and pulleys of the exhibit, but her attention had been elsewhere. That's all that most animal escapes - and most keeper deaths - come down to. A momentary lapse of attention. I had been paying attention, but to my trainer. Being unfamiliar with the set-up and protocol of the exhibit, I had no idea what she was supposed to be doing in what order, otherwise I would have noticed that issue of the gate.
Over the last several years, I've been present for many animal escapes - birds and mammals and reptiles and one very obnoxiously elusive poison dart frog who required several hours of crawling beneath the shelving units of the reptile house to finally recapture. The cheetah fiasco was brief in comparison to others - it took seconds, whereas some animals have taken days to recapture. It was, however, the most nerve-racking for me.
Tomorrow, I'm going to explore the world of animal escapes and how to avoid them (if possible... and it's almost always possible). Tomorrow, we explore a zookeeper's worst nightmare.