As a zoo keeper, there are so many misconceptions of our careers, what we do, and why we do it. Contrary to naive belief, we don't spend lots of time playing with the animals, rarely is there an animal we can actually enter its enclosure with it present, and we aren't constantly petting and cuddling these animals. What we are doing is lots of hard, back-breaking, unpleasant work. Why do we do it? Why do we pick up pounds upon pounds of stinking animal feces for as little as minimum wage a day? Why do we work a job that we miss so much in everyday life because we spend our weekends and holidays at work? Why do we work for months or even years volunteering or at internships for no pay just to attempt to get our foot in the door for a job that we may make only around $25,000 a year...that is, if we can even get hired? We do it because we love those animals. And I'm not talking the bunny hugging, "Omg! It's so cute! I want to pet it! I waaaant one!" love. Those kind of people...they could never be zoo keepers. Those kind of people we want to punch in the throat. Those kind of people have a selfish love for animals...the I love it because I can pet it, dress it up, display it for me, have it around for what I want. The love zoo keepers have for animals we have for the best interest of the animal. Which is why so many of us live daily with a dilemma.
In my opinion, you're not a good zoo keeper unless you have some degree of an ethical dilemma with your career. Because when you are conflicted about the animals being in captivity, you work even harder to give them the better life they deserve. We don't do what we do because we like to see these animals caged. The reality is that some animal's lot in life is to live out their entire lives in captivity. I'm not trying to send a message that zoological institutions are bad and should be shut down. Yes, there are some very unethical places out there that should not exist, but zoos, the good ones, serve a definite purpose. Some animals could never survive in the wild. They have been rescued as former lab animals or confiscated as illegal pets. In a zoo, they have somewhat of an opportunity at the most normal life possible for them rather than being someone's trophy pet or furry petri dish. Some animals are becoming endangered and extinct at alarming rates. For some of these species, zoos are the only hope of breeding, keeping the species alive, and for hope of re-establisihing wild populations. And all of the animals in zoos, educate the public. For many, zoos are the only place someone is going to be able to see an African lion or Himalayan black bear. Why is this important? We do not choose to save that which we don't understand or relate to. Zoos give many the opportunity to feel that connection to the natural world that they may not have otherwise have had. I know visiting zoos as a child inspired me to follow my career and become passionate about helping animals in any way that I can.
A zoo keeper's job can be very rewarding and it can be extremely difficult. We would much rather see animals in their natural environment than in captivity, we would rather spend holidays and weekends with friends and family than at work, and we would really like to be able to pay our bills without having to take on extra jobs in addition to our full time, physically demanding job (I had up to three different part times job at one point while working full time at the zoo). Please don't take any of that as a complaint. It is the life we chose and we would gladly take the same path all over again. We do what we do because these animals are in captivity, we love them, and we want to give them the best damn life that is possible for them in their captive lifetimes.
Zoo keepers are some of the most dedicated career professionals. Everything we do is for the animal's best possible well-being, not for our own. And, in a day where we find ourselves mostly covered in dirt, sweat, and excrement, we have that brief moment where we see one of our animals running just for the fun of it, like there are no fences around it, those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.