For many people, zoos are a complex issue. Yes, there are excellent ones that do great work with animals that are endangered and might well be extinct without the extensive rehabilitation programs that have been in effect for decades. But there are also ones with questionable practices, that aren’t on the front lines of improving enclosures and diets, and that aren’t concerned with giving the animals they care for the most natural life experience possible.
Running a quality zoo isn’t for the faint of heart. Expenses are high, hours are long, and animal care is challenging. But the zookeepers who love their calling and the animals they care for wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. They’re the ones that sit between us and the animals, and below are some of the secrets they’re willing to reveal about things that go on behind-the-scenes that might surprise you!
#10. There are animals that aren’t on display.
There are a few reasons that animals might stay behind-the-scenes at a zoo. Newborn offspring can be kept from the public, along with their mothers, to give them time to bond away from prying eyes and loud noises. Plus, many of them will never go on display at the zoo where they’re born, and will be sold to other zoos instead, as zookeeper Nancy explains:
“If your zoo is breeding a given species, then it’s likely that the species is already well-represented in your displays. So you wouldn’t need to put all of the babies in the public viewing areas. Visitors might like to see one or two burrowing frogs, but there’s be no point in having an entire wall full of them.”
They will also keep animals off-display if they take part in special performances or travel to schools or other environments regularly for educational purposes, though these will typically be smaller animals like reptiles and birds. Elephants, after all, are hard to hide and don’t travel well in urban spaces!
#9. By “enriching” lives, zookeepers prevent animals from getting bored.
All mammals require more than simple food and shelter to be satisfied with life – we need both physical and psychological stimulation in order to truly thrive. To accomplish this “enrichment,” zookeepers work to get animals to display behaviors as they would in the wild.
This might entail a change of scenery, adding or removing things from enclosures, or the placement of new smells nearby. According to the Fort Worth Zoo, enrichment “increases the behavioral choices available to animals.”
Basically, the animals are forced to use their minds and bodies to react to changing environments.
#8. Zookeepers are extremely dedicated and passionate people.
You have to be in order to even get a job in this elite field. Zoos receive literally hundreds of applications just for single animal care, and even if you do get hired, you’ll start at a salary of less than $29,000 per year. Even so, their passion is unmatched, and required, according to zookeeper Bob:
“Just recently when Hurricane Matthew hit, tons of keepers slept in their zoos, hunkered down in case the animals needed emergency help. We go in at 2 a.m. to check on new moms. We are constantly researching ways to improve welfare and our own personal knoweldge.”
It’s a close community, too, and Bob explains why this is so necessary in their line of work.
“Everyone knows someone who works at another zoo and on Facebook, everyone is so supportive. There are closed groups of keepers where new ideas are constantly exchanged, and people help support strangers when they lose an old, beloved animal. What we do is so hard and stressful and you always have to fight caregiver stress syndrome, but we power through.”
#7. Keeping pandas is super expensive.
Giant pandas are a huge draw, but they also have some drawbacks. For one, they must be kept in pairs. Another thing to consider is that their diet consists only of bamboo, which means they have to consume a lot to get their daily nutrition – up to 84 pounds a day. If the zoo is located in an area where growing bamboo is difficult or impossible, the expenses of importing it really add up. The Toronto Zoo, for example, spends about $370,000 annually just to feed their pandas.
Then there’s the fact that that the Chinese government holds a panda monopoly (yes, that’s apparently a thing), which means foreign zoos can’t really own pandas, but merely lease them for a decade at a time. The zoo makes an annual payment to China for the privilege, which is typically upwards of $500,000 a year. Oh, and if a panda dies while in your care and China determines that it resulted from human error, there will be a hefty fine.
If you’re keeping track, then you’ve figured out that a pair of pandas alone can cost a zoo nearly a million bucks a year.
#6. Feeding all of the animals, in fact, isn’t cheap.
This one seems like a no-brainer – I mean, just think about how much money you spend every month to feed yourself or your family. And zoos have high standards of quality to meet when it comes to nutrition. Kerri Slifka, the curator of nutrition at the Dallas Zoo, told the Dallas Morning News,
“We’re probably pickier than some restaurants. We have to be very careful because we’re dealing with endangered animals, and animals we want to reproduce and live long lives.”
The animals are an investment, after all, and in recent years most zoos have responded favorably to the idea that meal plans for certain species should be standardized. This becomes important as more and more zoos transfer animals between them and consistency becomes paramount.
Mere quantity, too, contributes to cost. Elephants consume up to 600 pounds of food every day, which adds up to $15,000 per year, and Slifka mentioned in her interview that the Dallas Zoo had a group of baby Marabou storks that cost over $10,000 apiece to feed within their first 100 days of life.