We've all had the experience of losing something and at that time realizing just how precious that particular thing truly was. If you carried a "blankie" around when you were little, you probably remember a time when it was misplaced. Until that time, it was just your blankie, a constant companion that was always there, but it meant even more when it was gone. Security blankets are important and as we get older they come in other forms, the most common being common sense, good judgment and following the rules. Even though we've grown older, we all know the sense of unease when our safety feels threatened. At Lee Richardson Zoo, we strive daily to make sure no one has that feeling while at the zoo.

Regretfully, we periodically hear about incidents with animals when someone's safety and security has gone missing. Most recently in California when a woman lost her life while caring for a lion at a sanctuary. Prior to that, the killer whale trainer who died in 2012 and in 2011 an elephant keeper died in Tennessee, plus in Ohio a number of exotic animals from a sanctuary lost their lives due to the actions of the man who owned them. In 2007, a young man died after a tiger attack at a California zoo, and a cat keeper died in Colorado after a jaguar attack. And back in 2005, in southeast Kansas, a senior in high school lost her life during senior pictures with an exotic cat. Back through the years there have been other incidents across the country that could be listed, but you get the idea. Somewhere along the line, someone makes a mistake, whether it is an overt action or a mistake in judgment, and mistakes have repercussions. Safety is a precious thing.

Whether it's in a zoo, a sanctuary or with a common pet, working with animals is a big responsibility. Not only are you responsible for your own safety, but also for the welfare of the animals, the safety of your colleagues and those who visit your facility (or home if we're talking pets). At Lee Richardson Zoo, safety is uppermost in our minds at all times.

A basic consideration when deciding whether or not to bring a new species to the zoo is if we can meet all of its needs in a manner that is safe for all. Much of the maintenance department's day is occupied with keeping the facilities safe. Staff members go through at least four emergency drills each year ranging in topics from natural disasters to animal escapes.

When interviewing a new keeper candidate, safety is one of the many aspects we delve into. New keeper orientation and training is rife with safety practices, from personal protective equipment to be worn while using a weed eater to double checking each and every lock used each and every time, and much, much more.

A keeper's daily routine is so safety oriented that most of it becomes second nature. At that time the challenge is to keep it from becoming so routine that you miss something. Operating on "remote control" during the job can be a hazard. A keeper has to always be in the moment and analyzing each moment. Is the door closed all the way? Did the latch catch properly? Is the siamang all the way through the door before you close it; is she going to boomerang back and try to squeeze through the narrowing doorway before you finish closing it all the way? Is each post of the exhibit still firmly in the ground and each strand of the exhibit wire intact? Is the toddler who is walking 10 paces in front of her parents going to stop at the roadway; will the parents get to her first if she doesn't? Do I have a good enough hold on this kangaroo to keep others from getting kicked while it gets a vaccination? Is the addax that is walking toward me going to turn and continue in another direction like it always has in the past or is it going to charge? Can I net the quick and agile Goeldi's monkey without hitting it with the rim of the net? Is the child playing in the dirt or is he picking it up to throw it at the animal?

You can't take anything at face value. This doesn't apply only to the keepers; it's the same for all zoo staff members. Safety is everyone's responsibility.

That responsibility can weigh heavily on those who carry it. I've turned back to check locks again just because as I walk off, when I replay it in my head, I'm not 110 percent sure (there is no room for error). I've even gone back after leaving work to check on doors or locks one last time to quiet that nagging whisper at the back of my mind as I review the day in my thoughts. I'm not the only one with these idiosyncrasies. In fact, I'd say it's a safe bet that I'm in the majority within the profession. My husband now teases me about my level of "paranoia," but after almost 29 years in the business, I come to it fairly and it's served me well. I know a keeper who, after accidentally letting some chimps into the keeper service area, even though everything was resolved without injury to human or chimp, transferred to the bird department because she didn't want that level of responsibility. The job is enjoyable and rewarding, but it has its downside.

If you find this enlightening, and you never had the occasion to think about the zoo that way, then good, we're doing our job well. Sure, we ask you to stay on your side of the fence, don't reach into the animal area to try to pet the animals and a few other simple things like that. But, in general, we want to make your visit to the zoo as carefree as possible so that you can just enjoy the animals, connect with them and maybe learn something while you're at it. We focus on the welfare and safety of the animals, our staff and visitors so you can relax.

Come, relax and enjoy Lee Richardson Zoo.

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.