I work in a profession that is fulfilling, entertaining, heart-warming and, at times, heart-wrenching. It is mentally and physically challenging, and it is dangerous. My colleagues and I get to work with animals day-in and day-out that some people may not get to see in their lifetime. We get to see baby giraffes taking their first wobbly steps, watch children break into smiles as they watch lemurs frolic around in their enclosure, jumping around in the trees or on man-made climbing structures. We get to participate in programs that help produce offspring of threatened or endangered animals like addax, Bali mynahs and Amur leopards. We regularly rise to the challenge of providing for all the various needs of a wide variety of species at various stages of their lives. Some individuals may be with us for only a portion of their life, while we may have others for their entire life. Regardless, while with us, we are responsible for helping to provide what they need for nesting material, helping out with a difficult birth or hatch, providing a program that will keep them mentally and physically active and healthy, figuring out what will tempt an elderly tiger to eat, and how to introduce two new lorises from different zoos that are recommended to become a breeding pair, plus much more. We also have the bittersweet honor of being there when some of these animals pass on. At those times we hope that our presence will provide some comfort to our friend of many years or maybe they're actually the ones that comfort us one more time. So we say our goodbyes and try to focus on the good memories.
Zoo professionals, as a whole, face the all-encompassing challenge of accomplishing all of this, each and every day, safely, no matter what comes up. Animals don't always cooperate, sometimes none of them do. A storm rolls through the night before, causing limbs to drop throughout your exhibits, which will have to be cleaned up; lots of people visiting today with questions about the animals and oh, by the way, one of them dropped their glasses into the bear exhibit — can you please get them. Maybe today is the day you have to help unload the 23-ton hay delivery. It all has to be taken in stride while the regular daily tasks are accomplished. Our job is to take care of the animals, educate the visitors, and make sure everyone ends the day happy and healthy — animals, visitors and co-workers alike. Much to our dismay, sometimes we don't succeed. A keeper was killed at a zoo in Missouri last week while doing his job. He wasn't the first in our profession to be killed on the job and, regretfully, he may not be the last.
We do all we can to work safely. We have protocols and procedures to follow. We do emergency drills. We carry pepper spray. Where appropriate, we use double locks, we have secondary containment areas, under certain circumstances more than one person is required to be present, etc. ... But in the end, it comes down to individuals and natural behavior — animal and human.
We work with wild animals, which can be unpredictable, and no matter how well we think we know them we can be caught off guard by their behavior. We also can fall victim to human nature. Humans have a habit of settling into a rut when we do the same thing repeatedly. We start doing it without thinking about what we're doing while we're accomplishing the given task. Have you ever headed home after a hard day's work, your mind racing with details of the day or the weekend coming up and suddenly you find yourself pulling into your driveway unable to remember any details of your drive home? Do that while caring for a jaguar and bad things can happen.
We tend to look for shortcuts when more tasks get added to our already full day. "I know I shut all the gorillas out on exhibit this morning, and I'm sure no one else has changed things since then. I can get a little ahead by just opening the door and starting to clean instead of first walking all the way around and counting them in the exhibit." Ever get up in the morning and realize you forgot to lock your house the night before (but you swear you remember doing it) or arrive at work or school and realize you left something at home, something you're sure you had when you headed out that morning? Maybe there's still a gorilla in the room.
When a keeper is killed at work, it may be an accident, it may be human error. The situation is analyzed from every angle possible in order to try to find out how to prevent a similar incident from happening again if at all possible. It serves as a painful reminder to all of us in the profession that we must continually analyze how we do what we do. Not just in workshops and conferences, but each and every day. "Am I doing this as safely as I can?" is the question that must be uppermost in each zoo professional's mind, no matter how many times we've done a task exactly the same way, or how long we've worked with an animal or species. In this way, we can continue to do the work that we've chosen, and in this way we can honor those that have fallen by continuing to do the work to which they dedicated their lives.
Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.