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Monday, August 8, 2016

The Bunny Hugger

I'm pretty non-confrontational, both in work life, private life, and on the internet.  That being said, as long as it doesn't involve me I can get a perverse amount of pleasure of watching it go down.  A good source of such free entertainment can be found on any of the zookeeping facebook groups that I belong to, where keepers will loudly and bitterly fight about just about anything.  Whenever I see a post about working free contact with big cats, or American vs. European views on euthanasia, or whatever, I just kick back with the popcorn and read the comments.

Today there was a particularly nasty exchange, and it got real.  Someone called another keeper a bunny hugger.

That probably requires a little explanation.  It may seem sweet, but "bunny hugger" is one of the not-nicest slurs that one zookeeper can make towards another.

I first came across the phrase when I was a teenager.  The volunteer coordinator of our city zoo, where I had been volunteering for a few years, was recommending me for a new program at our facility, one which allowed me to get my first hands-on experience with big cats, primates, and other animals considerably more exciting than the turtles and non-releasable native raptors that I'd been working with the education department.  "You'll like him," I overheard her tell a still skeptical curator, reluctant to have a sixteen -year old traipsing around with snow leopards and siamangs.  "He's a good worker, and he has lots of common sense.  He's not a bunny hugger."

I thought she'd just coined the phrase on the spot.  After all, our education department did have bunnies, and some of the other volunteers were known for being a lot for keen on petting the soft rabbits than they were in actually feeding or watering or, heaven help them, cleaning up after them.

It turned out that bunny hugging was an actual thing.  It needn't involve actual bunnies, however.

A bunny hugger is someone who professes very much to love animals, but doesn't actually know much about them except that they like them.  Now, that in itself there is nothing wrong with - liking something is an excellent springing-off point for caring about something.  Your stereotypical bunny hugger, however, is very vocal about their love for animals and has super strong opinions which aren't backed up by reality, and their "care" is often detrimental to the animal.  Their affection for animals is shallow and self-serving, mostly about making them look important or noble.  A bunny hugger, I was once told, is the sort of person who will yank a fish from a stream and then boast of how they saved it from drowning.

I was once asked by a classmate in college to take a look at her rabbit for her, which was suffering from severe diarrhea.  It turned out that she had been feeding him carrots... and only carrots.  Sure, she knew that there was such thing as rabbit food, but thought that he'd be happier eating carrots.  Maybe he was happier, during the actual act of eating them... but not during the agonizing cramping that came later. 

It also turns out that bunnies really don't like being hugged.  Lots of animals don't, really.  An amazing number of small animals are petted to death by people who think that they are being sweet and loving them, not killing them.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why people in this profession can take the term so negatively.  To be called a bunny hugger is to have your commitment to the animals questioned.  It says that your care for them is skin deep, or that you only care when it's convenient to.  It says that you are more interested in what your animals can do for you (impress your friends, give you affection, entertain you, make you look important) than what you can do for them.  It says that you're unwilling to be the bad cop when you need to - to give an injection, for example, or to cut back on a favorite but unhealthy treat.  Essentially, it says you're a lousy keeper.

Bunny hugging is most commonly seen in new keepers, who haven't quite figured out how committed they are to the job yet.  You learn to recognize them pretty quickly.  They're the ones who take forever to clean an enclosure (and do a poor job of it anyway) because they're too busy taking selfies with the animals.  They are best dropped as soon as possible - they'll either get themselves hurt or quit as soon as the going gets tough, anyway... that or the rest of your team will strangle them for never getting any work done and spending all day talking in infuriating kissy-baby voices to the animals.

Zookeeping is a profession for people who love animals; it really is the only reason to do it (it's certainly not for the money or the glamour).  There is a real difference, however, between loving animals and acting like you love animals.  Actually caring for them means sacrifice, commitment, and a constant drive to learn to do better.  That's what separates keepers from bunny huggers.

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