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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Women of the Zoo

Today, in honor of International Women's Day, many women walked out of their workplaces, an attempt to highlight the importance of women in the workplace, as driving forces of our economy and social and cultural institutions.  It's a good thing that not many lady-zookeepers took part.  If that did, it would have shut the entire profession down for a day.

It's hard to say exactly when the profession of zookeeping went from male-dominated to female-dominated.  At the turn of the last century, zookeeping was for men - manly men - men who could grab a kudu bull by the horns and wrestle it into a crate, or force-feed a reluctant-to-feed python.  Women, it was thought, had their uses - the petting zoo, handraising baby animals - but the "real" animals were for the men to manage.  It wasn't really until the focus on zoo animal management went from physical domination to a more patient, kinder form of care that women began to crop up in numbers.  A new generation of zookeeper arose, one that focused more of observation, gentleness, and positive relations with their charges over brawn.

Which isn't to say that the new, female-led generation of zookeepers aren't tough.  I've spent years watching girls tossing hay bales and carrying feed sacks.  Watching them plow through three feet of snow just to reach their exhibits.  And, of course, watching them pushing wheelbarrows filled to the sagging point with hundreds of pounds of unspeakable (but not, alas, unsmellable) foulness.  Sometimes from the back they get mistaken for men.  Sometimes femininity gets thrown completely out the window when they hit the break room and fight you tooth and nail for that last of the donuts that docents brought in.  It can be hard to connect the girls at work, plastered with mud, loose hair tied up with baling twine or a ziptie, with the very different ones who show up after work, cleaned up, combed, smelling of things other than fish and big cat pee, sometimes even wearing make-up.

So today, it's good as any other day to say "Thanks" to the ladies of the zoo.  Keepers and trainers, educators and administrators.  Without them, the place would be nothing.

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