Things are always changing at the zoo and in the zoo world. Right now at Lee Richardson Zoo, the birds are nesting, the Nature Trail is seeing improvements, and a few planting projects are adding more color to our surroundings. Behind the scenes, we are working with architects and construction managers on the plans for the new primate habitat, the new flamingo habitat and the expansion of the animal health facility.
Changes don’t just happen at facilities; they happen across the profession, too. As with other professions or businesses, zoo work involves more and more technology as time goes by. What used to be very basic in design, containment, and care — and did not really focus much on conservation or public education — has taken leaps and bounds from where it began. Even in my 35 years in the profession, the changes have been numerous.
As a new keeper working the night shift covering various keeper duties across the zoo as well as security rounds, I carried a large two-way radio that I would use to call the Sheriff’s Department once a shift in order to check in, or anytime during the shift if there was a security problem. The head of the department I worked in, the general curator, carried a pager.
Keepers didn’t have individual radios, and most of the buildings in the zoo didn’t have phones. As communication equipment developed, night keepers switched from carrying the big Sheriff’s radio to a large cell phone in a shoulder bag, then a couple more evolutions of cell phones as they got smaller and lighter (but still pretty large and heavy by today’s standards), and now almost everyone has a cell phone that fits in their pocket. Nowadays staff each carry a radio and zoos have cameras to help monitor what’s happening.
Zoo enclosures have evolved from a sole focus on containment when zoos first came into existence, to a primary focus on what’s best for the animal that lives there. Do they like to climb or swim? Are they active during the night or during the day? Do they prefer to live alone or in a group? Diets for zoo residents are based on the analysis of wild diets and what keeps the animals healthy rather than what’s left over from the kitchen. Over the last thirty-five years, working with zoo residents through operant conditioning/positive reinforcement and focusing on enrichment to benefit their mental and physical well-being has expanded greatly.
Staff still spend a great deal of time cleaning up after the zoo residents, but they also spend time addressing other areas that contribute to animal welfare besides a clean habitat. Staff work with the animals through positive interactions, encouraging them to voluntarily participate in their own care (i.e. show keepers and the veterinarian various body parts when requested) rather than having to be forced or sedated for every little procedure.
Staff work to make sure the zoo residents have enrichment (toys, furniture to play on, swings, pools, puzzles, etc..) that will keep them mentally and physically healthy rather than developing stereotypical behaviors due to boredom. Seeing a lion sleeping peacefully in his habitat is actually a very good thing. It’s typical for lions to spend a good part of their day sleeping — it’s something you’d see quite often in “the wilds” of Africa if you were lucky enough to visit and see a lion in its native environment. Seeing the sleeping lion is a much better sign of quality care, when compared to a lion pacing all day long.
When zoos started, they were staffed by anyone who wanted to work there, many with no particular skills. Over time the zoo profession has become a combination of several competitive opportunities that people work for years to get into covering animal husbandry, marketing, education, communication, fabrication, life support systems, horticulture, guest services, research, veterinary care, and more.
If you’ve ever seen the John Wayne movie “Hatari”, you’ve seen how exotic animals used to be captured in the wild for zoos around the world. These days most animals in zoos are born in zoos. If any animal is removed from the wild, it’s either a rehabilitation situation where the animal can’t survive in the wild (eagle with a wing injury that can no longer fly), or it’s after a very long permitting process that ensures removing the animal(s) isn’t hazardous to the wild population or is a way to save that wild population (i.e. California condors).
While the goal used to be showing visitors an example of the unusual animals of the world for entertainment, it is now helping visitors connect with those ambassadors of various species to encourage conserving wild life and wild places.
Visit the zoo website or Facebook page for information on current zoo happenings.
Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.