Zoo Workers Discuss the Secrets About Their Jobs

I ‘m willing to bet that working at a zoo would be exciting and challenging.

And one of the reasons I don’t think I’d be able to do it (besides being terrible at science) is that when animals were sick or needed to be put down, I know I’d be a blubbering mess and wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

But I still want to know what the job is like…

AskReddit users who work at zoos opened up about what goes on behind the scenes that the general public doesn’t know.

Let’s dive in!

1. FYI.

“If you have to choose between cleaning the p**p from a flamingo enclosure or an elephant enclosure, choose the elephants.

The flamingos were by far the smelliest exhibit, and elephant p**p is heavy but comparatively odorless.”

2. Showing off.

“Lions know fully well that they can’t get through the glass.

They do that just to get attention.”

3. Sad.

“De** zoo animals are sometimes fed to carnivores.

There’s a farm/zoo in the UK that uses crocodiles to get rid of d**d cows.

The owner once said he’d like the same end when he d**s.”

4. Dirty work.

“The poor penguin keepers can never quite get rid of the miasma of d**d fish that envelopss them.

As for me, the stinkiest job I ever had to do was cleaning out the duck ponds.

Managed to empty a whole train carriage that evening, even though I had changed and my work clothes were double-bagged.”

5. The straight dope.

“Most of zookeeping is just picking up p**p and making/delivering food.

The animal that was was least scary was a cheetah. They were pretty cool ignoring everything as long as they had food. The most scary to me were the giraffes.

Back then you went into the enclosure with them and they’d sometimes swing their heads around and try to hit you just to be pr**ks. You had to be careful.

The job would actually be fantastic if they didn’t let people into the zoo.”

6. Gentle giants.

“Rhinos may look super intimidating, and they can hurt you, but really they just act like big dogs.

They love being scratched and will eat all the fruit out of your hand!”

7. Big secret.

“I worked at a zoo in a northern country (can’t say which as it’ll give it away) which had a white tiger, and was quite famous for it.

One day the zoo announced the tiger had d**d of ‘natural causes’. While working there a few years after he d**d, I was told by a keeper that there was actually a problem with the electric fencing in his enclosure that the zoo managers refused to pay to get fixed, thinking it would be fine.

He was electrocuted to d**th a few weeks after they found the problem.

They covered the whole thing up by saying they weren’t sure how he d**d, but that he was old. It’s still a zoo secret to this day.”

8. Grumpy tiger.

“When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I did volunteer work at the Oakland zoo.

There weren’t many of us, so we got to choose where we helped out, so I chose to work with Bhakti, the 32ish year old Bengal Tiger. Nearly oldest living in captivity when he finally passed. I chose him because he was beautiful, and he always seemed lonely.

He had pacing syndrome hardcore, so his entire paddock was green and lush except for the paths along the outer fence line and one or two diagonals he used to get into and out of his night cage. The keepers did their best with him, but had clearly written him off. He was grumpy, unsocial, hid from the public, swiped and hissed at keepers, and ignored all of the enrichment toys and food put out to keep him mobile.

They had a few young Siberians in quarantine already waiting to be put on display, they just had to wait for him to pass and the stubborn old cat lived to spite them.

He always started the morning by pacing his fence line, so I started pacing with him. No eye contact, no sounds, just walking back and forth for an hour or two.

After a couple weeks, he started chuffing at me when I arrived, so I learned how to mimic it to say hi back.

Another month, and he would actually break his pacing circuit to walk with me, jogging his ancient arthritic ass from wherever he was across the green sections to match me.

Poor guy just needed a friend. I still get a bit misty eyed thinking about him. Just a lonely old cat who had to spend the last years of his life basically alone.

Don’t get me wrong though, the keepers really did do their best, but they couldn’t spend all day with him like I could. They had many duties and creatures to care for and he had a really steep barrier to entry as a friend.

As grumpy as he was, I still think he was good people.”

9. Lights out.

“Some people like to bring fruit and stuff to throw into the animals cages, even though they’re not suppose to.

If you’re around and someone throws a pineapple into the gorilla or chimpanzee dens, gtfo. They will throw that thing full blast at someone.

I saw a man get hit full force right in the side of the head and he was lights out. Pineapple exploded on impact. Paramedics came and everything.”

10. Get that thing outta there!

“I volunteer at an aqurium and the people always ask about whether the sharks that are in with the fish ever eat the fish officially we say, “we keep them well fed enough that they don’t”.

But on more then one morning on my initial walk around I have found remains of fish that definitely weren’t feed fish. On a particularly memorable occasion I found the head of a large porgy just sitting on the bottom.

A diver went in and got it before guests arrived.”

11. That’s a bummer.

“I had to draft the zoo’s contingency plan for all sorts of emergencies. Flood, tornado, extreme heat, war or attacks, you name it.

The plan included a prioritized list of which animals in the collection we would have to sacrifice to feed to the other animals in extreme situations.

I literally created a zoo food chain. Humans were left off the list entirely.”

12. Older animals.

“I wanted to mention all the older animals.

Sometimes people don’t realize there are older critters who have health issues. A lot of older fish we had were kept in the back tanks away from view because people assumed normal old fish issues were a result of poor husbandry and would get upset if they were on display. Imagine having your 17 year old incontinent dog in a zoo, people would think it looks emaciated and pathetic.

Along the same lines, zoos have improved significantly in terms of animal husbandry over the years, but a lot of older animals have been in zoos since before these changes occured.

I remember working with a group of chimps and one of the old chimps would mast**bate while staring at me as I cleaned the outside of the enclosure. I had to remember this guy joined the zoo at a time when they would dress chimps up in kids clothes and make them have tea parties and s**t. He had some mental issues that weren’t his fault.

Thankfully that troop has gotten better housing and care and has now started acting more normally, even reproducing with their own troop members and acting like real apes should.

13. A hard work-life balance.

“If you work with the animals there’s a good chance you’ll not be able to have any kind of social life, between the long hours/weekends and the stench.

I’ve been kicked out of stores after work because I apparently stunk way worse than I thought I did – even after scrubbing off!

And I’m around animals every day, but I still can’t stand when otter / sealion keepers are around me in “all-hands” meetings. The rotten fish + ferrety otter smell combo is a gagger.

Meanwhile, I work with apes, and they say that I smell like I haven’t showed in a decade (again…even after I shower).”

14. Kinda funny.

“Our lions will urinate on guests if they get too close, which is always funny to see.

Not so funny to smell…”

15. Who knew?

“Zoos are one of the biggest purchasers of Calvin Klein’s Obsession cologne.

The cologne has animal musk in it and it drives the big cats wild.

We used to spray it on everything.”

16. Keep an eye out for those.

“I worked with large tortoises.

We had these 5-gallon buckets for cleaning the p**p out of enclosures and other buckets for feeding them fresh grass we cut. The first day on the job I took both buckets into the pen and started by dumping out the grass. Then I went around to collect p**p.

I heard this awful loud grunting and something breaking. One of the 300 lb males tried to bang the bucket in front of visitors and flattened it. He would even follow me around just in case I might leave more innocent buckets unattended.”

17. Unwritten rules.

“The zebras and Przewalski’s horses are ruthless and will tear apart any unfortunate wild kangaroo that dares break into an enclosure.

They love the thrill of the chase… and the subsequent k**l when they get bored.”

18. Get there early.

“Used to work at a zoo, cold weather makes the animals more active so go on a chilly day or first thing in the morning to see the best show from the animals.

Also, those free roaming peacocks are really stupid and sometimes go in the lions exhibit and get torn up.”

19. Escape drills.

“I used to volunteer weekly at a large zoo and at one point management started doing monthly dangerous animal escape drills.

Someone would run around in a lion onesie and we’d have to react as if one of the large animals had escaped. It was hilarious but one of the funniest things I was taught was that if an incident did occur you have to tell the nearby guests to get inside only once.

If after that they refuse to follow you indoors (the protocol was to hole up in the large activity centre buildings) , you’re to leave them there, go inside yourself and lock the doors. It makes sense because people can be very stupid and you don’t want to risk everyone’s lives because of one Karen, but it amused me no end that the protocol was to just let them get mauled.”

20. Mating.

“Aquariums have captive breeding programs for some of the dolphins and whales, but they are too difficult to transport for mating.

So they have to use artificial insemination. Which requires s**en samples from whales.

Which means that it’s someones job to give handj**s to dolphins and whales in order to collect the sp**m.

It’s part of the animal’s training, and the whales will roll over and present their ge**tals on command.”

21. People are annoying.

“The amount of dumba**es who complain to management about paying to go to the zoo, then not seeing any animals is unreal!

Like, what do you want us to do? Go in there with sticks and chase them out of their hidey-holes?!

Sorry buddy, not going to happen.”

22. Vicious.

“The most dangerous/feared animal in case of an escape is not, as you may think, lions, tigers or other large carnivores.

It’s the chimps.

Those things will rip your arm off and beat you to d**th with the bloody end as soon as look at you.”

23. Stay far away.

“If you have worked with them then you probably already know, but one swift kick from an ostrich can k**l you.

Like they will literally disembowel you. Every time I see a video of someone getting up close to one, I can’t help but cringe.

One of our head keepers had actually lost part of their ear to one.”

24. Somebody’s gotta do it.

“The amount of injuries you can just casually pick up from animals is crazy.

I’ve been kicked in the chest by a kangaroo, almost r**ed by an emu, attacked by a wombat and a bat, bitten by a monitor lizard and a carpet python, had a rhino charge at me, and been scratched by a macaque. My old boss has this bad a** scar from a snow leopard attack, and this guy I work with now has his entire left forearm mangled from an orangutan attack.

It also shocks you how….dumb people can be. There can be a huge sign that says “Hello! I’m an echidna, NOT a porcupine!” and people will still ask if that’s a baby porcupine.

You get used to the same jokes every day. Like when you’re cleaning up the outside enclosures (in view of the guests), someone will eventually say “Oh what a strange animal! I wonder what kind it is!” in regards to seeing a human. Or the amount of people who scream “HUMP DAY” when they see a camel….

I have no qualms about picking up animal s**t bare-handed. I know what my animals have been eating, I know what’s in their digestive systems, and to me that makes it more bearable. I can have long discussions about p**p consistency with my co workers, and in fact, that’s what a lot of general health talks are about. “Homer’s stool was a little looser than normal this morning – I wonder if something happened overnight to stress him out”

You get used to being stinky. I currently work 8+ hours with primates daily and I feel awful for the people who share a space with me when I go to the gym directly after work. Primate p**p smells very similarly to human p**p.

When I was at the zoo, I smelled exclusively of rhino p**s and I could not get the smell off of me.”

What are some behind-the-scenes secrets about your job?

Talk to us in the comments and let us know.

We’d love to hear from you!