A day at the zoo is one of those classic fun days out for the whole family - whether you are a tourist in the city or a local there. It’s a chance to get into some greenery and see magnificent animals up close, and maybe even see them being fed or doing tricks. The best zoos are extensive, focused on not only giving the crowd a show and some education, but with rehabilitation, breeding, and raising awareness of endangered species.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many people think that being a Zookeeper is an absolute dream job; getting to spend all of your time working up close with the kinds of animals that most people would never be able to get close to, watching them, caring for them, and teaching others about them. It’s a job that many kids (and adults) wish that they could be doing… but it’s not all as rosy at it seems.
There are definitely some secrets that the zookeepers of the world hold, and while some are silly, a little scary, or just plain gross, there are definitely a few some questionable secrets behind the gates of even the best zoos in the world.
25 The Animals Escape (A Lot)
Most people think that an escaped zoo animal would be a rare event, and a cause for total panic… but in reality, zoo animals are actually pretty incredible escape artists, and missing critters are more common than most people think.
There are even a few specific animals who have a reputation as escape artists, like San Diego’s orangutan Ken Allen, aka the Hairy Houdini.
Even potentially dangerous animals like bobcats have been known to disappear for a day or two… but they are usually brought back with no one outside the zoo employees any wiser.
24 Fence Heights Are Often Based On Guesswork
Perhaps one of the reasons that it’s a lot easier for animals to escape than most people think is that a lot of the fences and enclosure perimeters are based on guesswork. It’s difficult to guarantee how an animal will react in an enclosure, so fence heights usually begin based on a rough idea of how high the animal will jump in the wild - and when the animal clears it, it’s time to raise that fence!
Visitors might not be so happy to get quite that close if they only knew…
23 Not Every Zoo Animal Is On Display
Most people also seem to think that a zoo will have every animal in their collection out on display for the public, but that’s rarely the case. Especially in breeding zoos, keepers will often have many of the youngest animals behind closed doors so that they can be properly (and privately) cared for. Other animals may be adjusting to a new enclosure or recovering from illness… but some others are intentionally kept hidden in order to be brought out for special shows and events, to raise more money for the zoo (and the animals in it).
22 Zoos Can Drive Animals Bananas…
Zoos continue to work hard to get better and better at caring for their animals - and accredited zoos are a far cry from the caged menageries of old. However, even the best zoos are keeping their creatures in spaces much smaller than they would inhabit in the wild, and this can have a serious effect on their mental health.
Zoochosis is a term for zoo animals displaying unnatural and usually unfortunate behaviors, including overgrooming, eating things they shouldn't, vomiting, and more.
So next time you see an animal doing something ‘weird and cute’, it may actually be that animal driven mad by the small space.
21 Happy to share: …But Toys Can Keep Them Happy
You may have noticed that many of the best zoos don’t just attempt to replicate an animal’s natural habitat - they also include toys, climbing frames, and other puzzles and amusements. While some may scoff at these as just a way to make them cuter for visitors, this is actually part of an important program at reputable zoos known as ‘enrichment’.
Animals will get toys, games, and even scents in order to keep them stimulated and happy, and avoid zoochosis at all costs. Zookeepers themselves pour a lot of time and energy into creating these, too, to keep their charges as happy and healthy as possible.
20 Zoos Stage Fake Hunts
The obvious forms of ‘enrichment’ aren’t the only ways that zookeepers keep their creatures mentally healthy and stimulated, either. Predator animals are meant to be hunters in the wild, and so zookeepers do their best to make feeding time as interesting as possible.
For some animals, this means feeding on whole carcasses instead of pre-made food (definitely something you don’t want the little kids to see on zoo days!), but some will even create fake cardboard versions so that the predators can stalk and pounce, not just eat.
It may not be fun for the little ones to see, but it keeps the animals themselves happy.
19 Happy to share: Tricks Aren’t Just For The Visitors
As well as toys, games and fake hunts, many zoo animals take part in shows and displays where their keepers will have them perform ‘tricks’ for an audience. To some, this may seem unnatural or simply a money grab, but it’s not just about getting a laugh… many of these ‘tricks’ are done in order to help keepers check on an animal’s health.
Something as simple as having a leg or fin lifted can allow the keeper to check under it and make sure that the skin there is healthy - and if it gets in more visitors (and money) in the process, so much the better!
18 Happy to share: Zookeeping Is One Of The Most Competitive Jobs In The Country
Most zookeepers will have no problem telling aspiring animal lovers that this is far from an easy job to land. In fact, San Diego’s HR department will routinely receive hundreds of applications for any job that opens up, so getting into this field usually takes degrees in a related subject and plenty of volunteer hours to even have a shot at a position. That shouldn’t discourage the most dedicated of aspiring keepers, but it will certainly make anyone who thinks it’s an easy way to hang out with animals all day think twice.
17 Zookeepers Don’t Get Paid A Lot
Although it’s no secret that it’s hard to get into zookeeping, what most won’t tell you is that despite the competition, zookeepers aren’t exactly high earners. Most salary comparison sites make it clear that zookeepers don’t tend to earn above the $30,000 mark, unless they are highly specialized, senior, or are zoo veterinarians. That’s around half of the average salary in the USA… not exactly a lucrative position. It’s clear that zookeepers aren’t in this field for the easy money!
16 Even Zoo Vets Are Underpaid
You might think that zoo veterinarians would earn more than their associates who deal primarily with household pets… but that isn’t the case. In fact, vets who work with animals raised for food often earn the most, with equine (horse) vets in second place, and companion animal (pet) vets coming in third. Zoo vets, despite having to deal with a range of exotic creatures that their colleagues will probably never even see, get paid the least - probably because the zoos simply don’t have the kind of funds to pay more.
15 Penguins Are Seriously Smelly
Penguins are absolutely adorable, and can be one of the most popular zoo exhibits, especially after animated films like Happy Feet showcase these cute little cold weather critters. They have a reputation for being devoted and loving, and the stories of them mating for life can easily capture a zoo visitor’s heart… but if those visitors got behind the plexiglass for a whiff of these adorable little tuxedo birds, they might feel differently.
According to many keepers, Penguins take the prize for the stinkiest animal in the zoo, thanks to their especially pungent guano.
14 Dealing With The Smelly Stuff Is Half The Work…
Speaking of the smelly stuff, dealing with animal toilet time is about half the job of an average zookeeper - and it shouldn’t be surprising that the bigger the animal, the more there is to deal with!
Keepers may spend a lot of their time caring for, training, and creating games for their charges, but about half their time is spent shoveling, cleaning up, and carting away everything that comes out the other end.
They might not all be as famously stinky as the penguins, but it’s not for the faint of nose, because there’s still a lot to scoop on a daily basis!
13 …And They Do Get Bitten
Huge competition to get hired, low pay, and a whole lot of smelly stuff to pick up on a daily basis… but that’s not the end of the less than glamorous side of zookeeping!
Unsurprisingly, zookeepers do get bitten by their animals from time to time, especially when dealing with young animals, moving animals, or taking care of sick animals. They do wear gloves to try and keep themselves safe, but some of these cute little critters come with razor sharp teeth that can go straight through those thick gloves to the tender fingers underneath.
12 Happy to share: Sometimes They Hide Meds In Treats
Another thing that happens when zookeepers are taking care of sick or injured animals (other than the biting, of course) is that the animal doesn’t want to take their medication.
Oral medication can be difficult to administer (how do you explain to an antelope what it’s for?), so in some cases, zookeepers will rely on the same trick that you might use with a pet dog at home; they hide the medication in a delicious treat!
Turns out, just because animals are big and exotic, that doesn’t mean they don’t want pets, toys, and medicine to be wrapped in something tasty.
11 Pandas Are Incredibly Expensive…
Pandas are one of those animals that often make headlines - adorable, extremely endangered, and rare even in zoos. However, any zookeeper will be happy to tell you that these fuzzy black-and-whites don’t come cheap, and that few zoos could even afford them.
All pandas must be ‘leased’ from China, for a massive annual fee that is usually in the hundreds of thousands (Washington pays over half a million a year for their pair), and the bamboo used to feed them can cost another few hundred thousand on top of that. And that’s if they survive happily; if not, China will fine the zoo around $400,000 if something happens due to human error.
10 …And Animal Feed Is A Huge Expense
Pandas aren’t the only zoo animals to rack up big grocery bills… and feeding is an increasingly complicated business. Zoos have to find huge amounts of appropriate meats, fruits, veggies and grains that closely mimic the foods these animals would eat in the wild - and that can get expensive. Even by sheer volume, feeding can be a daunting task, and feeding some animals can costs tens of thousands in a year for each individual.
Add in animal nutritionists and the push to standardize diets for breeding program transfers, and it gets a whole lot more complicated than most guests might think.
9 The Bat Cave Is The Worst
Every zookeeper has their favorite (and least favorite) animals, but one enclosure that comes up time and time again when keepers complain is the bats.
Much like the penguins, there’s a whole lot of guano (#2) to deal with, but unlike the penguins, a lot of it is coming down from above!
Working the bat enclosure definitely means washing your hair at the end of your shift (ew)… and even worse, there have even been reports of bats who fall on the floor being accidentally stepped on in the dark, and that’s an even worse way to end the day than a head covered in droppings.
8 Fish Don’t Understand Glass (With Unfortunate Results)
Many zoos also contain aquariums, and these can be a magical place for visitors, where anyone can get a glimpse of life under the water.
The wide glass makes for a beautiful view for humans, but for fish, it can be extremely confusing.
Marine life especially is known for not getting the hang of it, and swimming at high speeds directly into the glass itself, or leap out of the exhibit… with understandably tragic results for the poor fish in question! (And no, the results don’t end up in the bucket at the seal show later on…)
7 Zookeepers Get Complaints About ‘Obscene’ Animals
Everyone is excited to get a glimpse at the wild animals that they would never see otherwise, but some people have a little bit of an unrealistic expectation when it comes to how those animals are going to behave. From expecting creatures to act like their favorite pop culture counterparts to annoyance that they aren’t constantly running around doing things, zookeepers deal with a lot of complaints… but one of the most common (and ridiculous) revolves around animals during mating season getting “excited”.
Of course, there’s nothing a zookeeper can do, but they will definitely laugh about obscenity complaints after hours!
6 Happy to share: Zookeepers Talk About Badly Behaved Guests
It’s not just after hours that keepers will get together for a giggle over zoo visitors - if there are some particularly badly behaved guests, they will actually radio each other during the visit to pass on warnings.
That means that if you are ignoring their instructions, bothering the animals, tapping on the glass or trying to feed the monkeys, when you head out to the next part of the zoo, the keeper waiting there is already getting the low-down on who to look out for to keep their animals safe.
It’s probably best to just behave, and avoid that zookeeper field report!