Emily Sexson

As an animal lover, working at the Lee Richardson Zoo is an obvious positive in my life. However, as much as I love animals, working with them can present its own unique set of challenges. Even long before I worked at a zoo, I often wished that I had the ability to talk to animals. I can remember wishing so badly that our family pets would talk back to me.

They were obviously listening, and they knew what different words meant, such as “go for a walk” and the dreaded B-A-T-H that we always spelled out. With time I came to understand that animals are communicating; we just don’t always speak the same language.Now I work somewhere that is home to a huge variety of animals, and while I may not work with each of them individually, I do know that they all have their own unique ways of communicating.

Their communication can be audible, such as Razi, our eldest male lion, whose roar is loud enough to be heard across Garden City. Not every animal can afford to be loud and proud; in fact, some depend on the ability to remain silent and hidden for their survival. After all, a loud sound is an easy target. Communication can take place in many forms, a flick of the tail, a scent spray, a dilated pupil. To be able to communicate with an animal, you first need to understand their natural behaviors.

Members of our Animal Care teamwork with a wide variety of species. In order to do so successfully, they must know and understand not only the species they work with, but each individual. Razi is one of five African lions at the zoo, and while all five cats exhibit similar behaviors such as roaring, grooming, and playing, keepers must treat Razi and the others as an individual. They do this by paying attention to how each one communicates. Did Razi sleep later than normal? Did he leave food behind? Did he twitch his tail, did his pupils go wide, did his lip pull into a sneer? All these behaviors are forms of communication that let staff know how Razi is doing. Being able to read these behaviors give staff information to help ensure that Razi is healthy and thriving.

One of the biggest reasons I wish I could ask an animal a question and have them answer me in English is my desire to help them when they are unwell. I have asked animals a million times, “What’s wrong”? “Where does it hurt”? “What did you get into”? All to be met with a tilted head or silence. In the animal world, it is survival of the fittest.

It is vital to be able to understand the animals in our care because most animals will purposefully hide any signs of injury or sickness to avoid attention from a predator. We want to be able to help the animal before any possible ailment worsens.

A much smaller animal at the zoo who’s an excellent communicator is Willow, the bearded dragon. I have never heard Willow make a sound, and I’m sure I never will. However, Willow has communicated several things to me since she has arrived at the zoo, including “I see you”, “I’m hot”, and “leave me alone”! Bearded dragons get their name from their “beard”, or the underside of their throat. This area of the lizard can expand and look inflated, and even change colors.

When Willow turns one eye up towards me and tilts her head, I know she is watching me. When Willow leaves her mouth open, I know she might be hot, and when she stretches and expands her beard, I know she’s not in the mood to be handled. Bearded dragons will also use their beards for mating and aggression displays; however, Willow seems to be saving those forms of communication for another bearded dragon.

As a member of the Lee Richardson Zoo crew, I know that communication and understanding is vital to the success of the zoo. Not only are these important between my human co-workers, but also between staff and the animals in our care. Communication with our guests and supporters is extremely important as well! You can keep up to date with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and, email us at , or give us a call at 620-276-1250.

Emily Sexson is the conservation education manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.