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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who Are You Feeding Now?

It was uncharitable of me, I'll admit, to include Item #4 on my "Ten Things I Never Want to Here From Zoo Visitors Again" list.  For those of you who haven't memorized my blog entries from the last three years, that would be "Look, they're feeding it!" as I carry a can of paint... or am dragging the power washer... or do any number of other, non-food related tasks.  It especially baffles me that I find myself often being asked the question "Hey, are you about to feed the (insert animal here)" as I am walking away from that exhibit.

I'm hard pressed to say why that one irks me so much.  In part it's because the whole "Feeding Time!" thing is usually announced very loudly and garners a lot of attention, so I feel like I'm being a meanie by not feeding anything, even though I'm not the one that got everyone's hopes up in the first place. 

Secondly, and this is a little more obscure, I sometimes resent the implication that our animals are solely motivated by food, and that's what makes them tick.  When I walk past the otters, or the monkeys, or any of the other intelligent, curious animals and they come up to the front of the exhibit to say "Hello," visitors always make comments like "They think you're gonna feed them" or "Oh, they know who you are."  To which I always want to reply, "Wow, you have such an amazing insight into animal behavior.  Should I get you a job application while you're here?"  But I don't... and instead remind myself that there is a reason I choose to work with animals instead of people.

The animals know when they are going to get fed.  They know their routines, and more importantly, they can tell the difference between the sight (and smell) of me coming with a food pail versus me coming with a bottle of bleach, a hammer and nails, a roll of garbage bags, or nothing at all.  They will react accordingly... just as they would react a hell of a lot differently if they saw me coming with a net, a crate, and a pair of super-heavy duty gloves.

But, as I said at the beginning, I was being unfair.  Of course people want to see the animals feed.  In some cases, it's not too exciting - a bowl of chow gets put down and the animal picks at it as their hunger so moves them.  Others will only eat at night, or in off-exhibit holding areas, used to shift animals safely to and from exhibits.  That being said, other feedings are just plain awesome to watch.  Otters and penguins leaping and diving into the water after thrown fish, or pelicans catching fish with their beaks.  A herd of ungulates galloping over for grain.  Monkeys and apes swinging across the exhibit to get some fruit.  What zoo doesn't celebrate Halloween by throwing pumpkins to hippos, bears, big cats, and elephants? Maybe even a seemingly fake python suddenly rocketing to life as it uncoils to seize a proffered rabbit.  

A feeding demo can make even the most reclusive of zoo animals active and extraordinary.  The most memorable feeding of my childhood took place at the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo.  We'd gone in there as an afterthought, but watching the giant Pacific octopus emerge from her cubby hole and drift to the front of the tank was hauntingly beautiful.  And that was before I saw a keeper toss a handful of shrimp into a jar... and then screw the lid on it before sending it to the bottom of the tank.  The octopus took the jar in its arms and opened it, extracting the meal inside.  When I turned around, I found myself surrounded by a huge crush of visitors, all spellbound, most of them seeing the octopus for the first time ever... or at least for the first time as something more than a pink mass in the corner of the tank.

Other feedings are for more select audiences... maybe not suitable for kids.  Some zoos have taken to feeding whole carcasses - goats, road-killed deer, whatever - to their predators.  The aforementioned python will swallow its rabbit in one go.  A pack of African wild dogs, on the other hand, will tear their goat into pieces.  That stays with you for a while.

If you are going to the zoo and interested in what feedings can be observed, it's always good to check the website.  If you are a regular to a certain zoo, check with staff there to see if there's a usual time.  I'm a creature of habit myself, and if you were to name a random time during my work day tomorrow, I'd probably be able to tell you exactly what I'd be doing.  I've had visitors show up - waiting for me, in fact - because they were expecting me to be there to feed certain animals which they had seen before.

There's a lot more that goes into caring for zoo animals than feeding them.  In fact, that - the act of physically giving food to the animals - probably takes maybe an hour total of my workday... probably less.  Still, they are the part of the day that gives a zookeeper the best chance to bring the visitor and the animal together, share some stories, and start a conversation that could change the visitor's experience altogether.

Just stop asking me who I'm feeding the paint to..

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