Everything I need to know I learned as a keeper. (OK, Mom and Dad, maybe I learned a number of the lessons earlier, but the zoo field reinforced every bit of it.)
* Be on time. There's nothing like facing a barn of impatient, hungry animals because you're running late with their food.
* Enjoy the time you have with those you care about. Whether it's the animals you take care of or the colleagues you work with, we all go our own way eventually.
* Our true nature always comes out, even if you try to hide it. A tiger may be lying quietly, just watching you while you are facing it, but it's still a hunter. It may not appear that way until you turn your back, giving them the perfect stalking advantage, but it does come out. When you turn back around, hearing the roar and seeing the open mouth of a tiger, right there at eye level, even though it's on the other side of the barrier, it makes quite an impression — power, stealth, awe, respect.
* Everyone has to learn the boundaries. Little orangutans love to play and play, but adult male orangs only tolerate such behavior for so long and then they put a stop to it — gently, but the message definitely gets across.
* Always be prepared. After wading thigh deep into a pond on a very cold day to free a flamingo that had gotten its leg band caught on a stick underwater, I always had an extra set of clothes in the trunk of my car. I used to have what some friends called my "Mary Poppins" drawer at work. If they needed something small (phone numbers, lineman's pliers, batteries, quick links, aspirin, etc.) — I'd usually have it. It's not that I don't have it any more, it's just outgrown the one drawer.
* Do the job expected of you and do it well. Whatever it is, someone's depending on you to do it and do it right. You may be backing someone up who is attempting to net a spider monkey. Quick, agile, with two long arms, two long legs and a prehensile tail that's as good as another hand, spider monkeys can be quite a challenge to net. Having a dependable backup during such procedures can make things go much more smoothly and can prevent mishaps (bites, injuries, escapes). You may be cleaning a stall or exhibit. If you have ever tried digging out a water buffalo stall that hasn't been tended well, you know how important it is that this is done properly, not only for the animal but for the keeper who follows the next day also. You could be on the four to midnight "baby watch" — monitoring a first-time mom due to give birth any time, being there just in case she needs help. How you perform is important. If your work isn't done or is done haphazardly, someone suffers, and so do you, even if you do not realize it at the time.
* Give respect and receive respect in return — whether it's elephants, chimpanzees, water buffalo, king vultures or cuscus, if you treat them right it comes back to you, whether it's evidenced by a better relationship with the animal or by respect from your colleagues. What goes around comes around. (This also applies to working with your colleagues and could be characterized as "Plays well with others.")
* Reacting to some things just makes the situation worse. Stay in control of yourself and just go with the flow. A number of primates know how to get your number and once they do, they've got you forever. Splashing you with water, throwing things, acting big and noisy. If you can let them do their display without cowering or running, they'll usually calm down. Then you can work on improving the relationship. They just want to see how many of your buttons they can push — like some people you may know.
* You get out of it what you put into it — whether it's digging out a stall, training a gorilla to sit calmly inside a transport cage or growing professionally, it all takes effort. If your effort is less than 100 percent, your return will also be less. The stall will take longer to fill in, the gorilla will take longer to offer the desired response (if ever) and your professional world may not grow as much as you'd like.
* Looking at things from a different perspective can put a whole new light on things. I started as a night keeper. My first few days were during the day, just to get familiar with things. However, once on the night shift, I needed a map of the zoo in order to get around. True, I hadn't been there that long but the lack of daylight made everything seem very different. My visual perspective was changed, literally in this case.
* Have fun and enjoy what you do. Be dedicated, passionate, love it — however you want to phrase it. If it's what you're going to do for a living, it's going to be a major investment of your time. If you can't find a reason to "enjoy" mucking out the backed-up manhole of a water buffalo pool, pulling stickers out of a bison yard in 100-degree heat, or any number of non-so agreeable tasks within the job, you may need to look elsewhere for your livelihood. Many days will be filled with mundane and somewhat thankless duties, and the preferred parts of the job — seeing a child smile when they see their first elephant, watching a baby camel stand up for the first time, hearing a lion's roar roll across the zoo — come less frequently; but they do come and that's what makes it worthwhile.
Come visit Lee Richardson Zoo and see what we're passionate about.
Visit our new website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.