Life Lessons at a Zoo: Animal Teachers

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Whenever I tell people I work at a zoo, one of their first questions is always “Do you get to hang out with the animals?!” Since I work mostly in the gift shop/office, my answer is no. However, I do get to spend at least a few hours a week down at the feeding corral and I take some time during my lunch hour to walk through the zoo and see the other animals, and over the past few months I’ve spent some time reflecting on what I’ve learned from the animals I spend time with and how their lessons can be applied to life in general.

As previously mentioned, I spend the most time with the animals in the feeding corral. The main animals in that area are goats. Now, I never really thought about goats much before spending time with them, and now I feel like I know them way too well. They all have their own little personalities and I have a few favorites that I like to pet and scratch when I see them. People will buy treat food to feed to the goats, and the goats get so excited when they see people coming towards them with the little white bags of food. A few of them will even come running from the completely opposite side of the enclosure to greet the people and get fed. Because of their enthusiasm, frequently guests will come back through the gift shop and tell us the goats were their favorite animal in the zoo.

What goats have taught me: be excited and friendly and people will respond well to you. People like positivity and happiness, so try to offer that to them. They’ll like you more for it.

When the weather is nice, I like to eat my lunch out on a bench by the lion enclosure. The zoo recently acquired two male lions from another zoo that wasn’t going to put them on display because of space constraints, so they’re one of our newer exhibits. They’re two brothers, and the first time they were allowed out in their exhibit they started out cautious and then within minutes were exploring all the sides, sniffing the air for the scent of the female lion in the next exhibit over, and one was batting at the large ball in the water pool. We had a lot of people come out to the zoo for their unveiling, and still have people come through and comment on how majestic our lion boys are.

What lions have taught me: Sometimes things change and we can’t stay where we are. The change can be scary, and it might take some time to get used to it. But that doesn’t mean change is bad. It’s more than likely the change will lead you to a better place.

The zoo had three house cats that live in the office. One is a chubby orange cat named Macaroni. He’s been on a diet since before I started working at the zoo and probably will stay on a diet for the rest of his life. He’s the friendliest of the cats and will sometimes sneak out into the connected gift shop and charm guests until we put him back in the office. He is terrified of rain, and if he even senses rain coming will be a mess. He cries, tries to hide in secure corners, and his pupils get huge. When that happens, we give him a medication called “rescue remedy” to help him calm down and then cuddle him until he has relaxed. He’s learned that if he acts upset then he’ll get attention and love, and will frequently demand cuddles from people in the office.

What I’ve learned from Macaroni: Sometimes people need comfort and reassurance that things are okay. There is nothing wrong with that or with asking for help. Additionally, asking for help is basically the only way to get the help you need. So ask!

There are approximately thirty peacocks that wander freely throughout the zoo, including one partially albino female. She is known as Peeps and is a terror. Since she was raised by a former zookeeper, she doesn’t have the natural fear of humans that most of the other peacocks have. This causes her to follow people around the zoo and sometimes try to peck at them. She doesn’t like me very much for reasons I haven’t been able to figure out. If she sees me down at the feeding corral she’ll circle around me and eventually try to peck at my legs. There are times when I’ve had to call a zookeeper to have them take her to the quarantine section of the zoo so she can’t harass the visitors. One of my coworkers somehow was able to get on her good side and can pet her. I’ve never been brave enough to try that. I don’t like Peeps, but I definitely respect her.

What I’ve learned from Peeps: Not everyone you meet will like you, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you find a way to coexist.

My greatest weakness as a zoo employee is a fear of snakes. I’ve been terrified of them since I had a series of traumatizing nightmares around age ten (most of the nightmares involved snakes biting off my legs). Mostly the snakes at the zoo are confined to the reptile house, but we do also have to deal with some wild snakes that come onto zoo grounds, especially during the spring and summer months. When we see wild snakes, we are supposed to call zookeepers to come and capture them for later release at a plot of land away from the zoo.

The first time I saw a wild snake, I was walking with a coworker back to the office. I saw the snake slithering away in front of us first- a six foot long black rat snake. Considering I had never seen such a large snake in the wild before (I had only ever seen little garter snakes in Minnesota), I was pretty freaked out. I blurted out “Snake!” to my coworker, who made the radio call that brought the zookeepers and other zoo staff to us. I then rushed into the office and well out of range of the snake. Next time I saw a snake I was the only staff member around, so I handled the radio call and supervision until the zookeepers arrived. I was able to keep the panic out of my voice, although I did remain on the opposite side of the exhibit until the zookeepers had it contained. I’ve since seen at least three more snakes and am slowly getting less frightened by them. I still don’t want to be within two feet of them, but at least my head doesn’t start buzzing in fear.

What snakes have taught me: Fear can be worked through. It doesn’t have to paralyze you, and sometimes you can even get over a fear. It’ll take time, but it’s manageable.

I knew that working at a zoo would be fun, not to mention that it was a childhood dream of mine. However, I had no idea that it would turn out to be such a great place for important life lessons. As I continue to work at the zoo, I look forward to learning even more from animals because, believe it or not, they are some pretty great teachers.

 


 

Colleen is a proud Ravenclaw, tattoo enthusiast, and Jane Austen fan. Her dreams for the future include learning to make homemade ice cream and getting a full night of sleep without her cats waking her up. She can be found on tumblr as RavenclawPianist.

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