Understanding an animal’s needs can be quite a challenge, whether the animal is a family pet or a zoo resident.

We don’t exactly speak the same language, but with time and effort, a degree of understanding can be achieved, which is very beneficial for human and pet or zoo resident alike. This understanding can be the basis of a close relationship that adds to the quality of life for all involved. Learning what’s normal for that species is a good place to start.

Does the species normally reside in a desert, the grasslands, or how about the mountains? Is it used to tropical temperatures or the chill of the arctic? Is it active during the day or during the night? Is it a social animal or a solitary one? All these questions and more help to tell you what it may need or how best to approach aspects of its care.

Is it a predator species that hunts for its food? Such species need opportunities for activity and things to do to stay mentally and physically healthy, as do animals that travel miles to find ripe fruit in the trees as some primates do. Is it a prey species whose secretive nature helps it survive in the wild? In that case, the animal will need places to hide so it can be comfortable. Even animals that come from areas heavy with foliage may feel more at ease with options for cover nearby whether they are predator or prey.

Once you know the natural history for the species, then you focus on the individual. While the saying goes that a rose is a rose is a rose, I have yet to meet two individuals of the same species that are exactly alike even if they’re from the same litter or clutch, even if they’re twins. Getting to know what’s normal for that individual, their likes and dislikes, their habits, their medical issues, is key to understanding their specific needs and is essential in providing for their well-being.

One of the orangutans I used to work with simply refused to do much of anything before 10 a.m. After 10, whatever you wanted was fine, but before was a definite no-go. This was not a trait shared by the other orangs in the group or others that I’ve worked with elsewhere; it was simply Tia.

Knowing an individual’s history can also help in reaching that level of understanding needed to provide top-notch care. I knew a turkey once that would go after any man wearing a baseball cap. We never learned the historical root of this behavior, but something in his past definitely told him these guys weren’t friends. A number of years back, my husband and I adopted a dog who thought the same of any men who smoked. Based on something in her past, if you were a man who smelled like cigarettes, you weren’t to be trusted.

Needs can change based on circumstances. An individual that’s lounging around quite happily on a peaceful day may not be so happy when the trash truck goes rumbling by. One individual may not mind the sounds of a party from across the zoo, but for another, that change in circumstance might not be to his or her liking.

This was evident by Cleo the giraffe’s reaction to her first A Wild Affair a few years ago. Other giraffes at the zoo never seemed to mind the big party, but Cleo wanted to be as far away as she could get. Was it a difference in individuals or being just a little bit closer in the new west giraffe yard? Which is the specific answer doesn’t really matter as long as her desire not to be included on the guest list is acknowledged, which it is and always will be.

Changes happen over time, too. Our geriatric jaguar has different needs than she did when she was younger, and our geriatric Asian wild horse has different needs than her younger companions. Being sensitive to changes in needs as they happen is essential. “Never” and “always” usually don’t hold true with animals, especially across a species and even with individuals.

Much of this search for understanding in an ever-changing environment is what makes a keeper’s job at the zoo so interesting, challenging, and yes, even frustrating. But it leads to a deep connection with the zoo residents that we care for, and that same type of relationship bonds pets as family members.

Next time you’re at the zoo, see if you can detect some of the individual preferences of some of the zoo animals, or maybe see what you can learn about the natural history of your favorite zoo resident just by watching them for a while in their habitat.


Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.