Humans and animals have a unique bond that draws us together and sometimes defies explanation. Zoos as a whole enjoy greater attendance annually than major league football, basketball and baseball games combined.
People who work at zoos often choose this career path over a more lucrative one because they have a passion for working with animals. We use live animals in our programs to further strengthen the human/animal bond, to share the wonder, inspire imaginations and to make learning fun. A live animal in the room certainly captures and holds the attention of our audiences, both young and old, better than anything else might. Even if we're teaching about geography or math rather than biology, animals create an intriguing real life connection to make learning relevant and fun.
Lee Richardson Zoo displays both wild and domestic animals, and we appreciate the unique aspects of every species from gigantic elephants to tiny frogs or hissing cockroaches. One animal you won't see at our zoo, however, are domestic dogs or cats. With lots of exotic animals to care for at work, zoo people often settle for more common pets at home. But when it comes to mixing animals at home and work, we have protocols that greatly reduce the likelihood of the transfer of any disease or parasite from an "at home" pet via a staff member, to our zoo collection.
This caution also extends to our visitors, in the form of a rule that prevents visitors from bringing pets of any kind to the zoo. Whereas your dog may love a trip to the zoo for the medley of olfactory delights that it offers, a dog on the grounds can spell disaster for our animal collection.
Dogs, even those that share our homes each day, can carry and transmit disease or parasites in the form of fleas, worms, etc., without showing obvious signs of illness. Here at the zoo, our animal care staff works diligently to keep our collection healthy. Annual physicals give us an opportunity to draw blood, check teeth, eyes and ears, and record vital signs of a healthy animal to use as a baseline should an animal become ill in the future. Semi-annual testing for parasites lets us know if an animal needs treatment. Weekly vet visits review a broad spectrum of issues from injuries or limps, to respiratory problems or prenatal care. No matter how healthy we think our animals are, either at home or at the zoo, we are always on the lookout for those tiny signs that signal that illness is on the horizon.
So with that in mind, you may be surprised that, as much as we love them personally, we don't welcome dogs of any shape or size here at the zoo (with the one exception of trained service dogs). In fact, any time we do discover dogs in the zoo, either with their owners or without, they are immediately escorted out. The size or demeanor of the dog has nothing to do with our objection. Dogs are a canine, and a predator by nature, and our animals react accordingly. Over the years, I have witnessed a number of animal deaths here at the zoo resulting from a prey animal's natural reaction to escape from a canine predator. In one instance, a 2,000-pound Eland antelope reacted to a small puppy outside its enclosure by bolting, and in its panic gored a smaller springbok antelope to death. In another incident, three medium-sized dogs out for a romp one night dug under three fences, gaining access to the kangaroo yard and barn. The panic of the kangaroos at the sudden appearance of the dogs, and the dogs' reaction to this excitement, resulted in the death of the entire mob of 'roos, valued by us at much more than their $14,000 replacement cost.
More recently, we had two roaming dogs entering daily for almost four weeks through our main and playground gates. Although it inconvenienced other visitors, we began to shut the playground gate to prevent the dogs from coming in. This pair of pooches likely meant no harm, nor did their owner, for they were obviously pets, but they still posed a potential threat to our collection and we lost a lot of valuable work time dealing with their visits. It is quite likely the owner had no idea where the animals even were.
Despite their captive birth, large animals like the lions are not tame and have strong predatory instincts. They react to the sight of a potential meal (in the form of a pet or stray animal) by stalking or charging the enclosure fence. For the safety of all of our guests, our staff and our animals, we would prefer not to have them provoked in such a manner.
Disease transmission is another issue that can be controlled by preventing domestic pets or livestock admission to the zoo. Our wild guests (rabbits, raccoons, pigeons, skunks, foxes and other wildlife) are challenge enough. The additional threat posed by domestic animals is one that is easily preventable.
So whether you are a pet owner or not, the next time you visit the zoo, you'll have a better understanding of why it's important to leave "Fido" and "Fluffy" at home. We appreciate pet owners loving their pets enough to want to take them on fun excursions, but we also appreciate all guests respecting our animals in their zoo home, and respecting their own pet enough to not subject them to a hot wait in a parked car. Consider instead a trip to the dog park to play ball, or a pleasant walk on the new paths outside the zoo as good alternatives to bringing a pet into the zoo. This will keep all our animals happier and healthier in the long run!