Thursday, October 11, 2012

Livin' the Dream- My First Day as a Zookeeper

I always wanted to work with animals and in the dark days before the advent of Animal Planet as a kid I actually wanted to be Jim Fowler. Jim was the compliant assistant to Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom in a time before digital maps.
And good lighting. 

Being Marlin Perkin's 'assistant' meant doing all of the work wearing kick-ass, khaki pants and a sweet leather belt. It also meant being forced out of a Jeep or boat by Mr. Perkins in order to subdue a 40 foot long crocodile or something similar. Mr. Perkin's calming voice-over would offer up a narrative that made it sound like wrestling a croc was a perfectly normal thing to do and there was no danger whatsoever involved.

Marlin pointing out a crocodile to Jim so he could wrestle it by hand, into submission

After landing the ultimate, animal lover's dream job- working at a zoo- I quickly learned that Mr. Perkin's calm demeanor in the studio may have been a tad misleading.

"Just kiddin'! There's no croc- It's really a bear!" exclaims Marlin, much to Jim's delight

On my first day as a zookeeper, I was told that I would not be working with animals that day. The time would be spent filling out W2's, getting my zoo issue cargo pants and HR bullshit. And I would be doing all of this while spending the entire eight hours with my new boss, Tawny, a zoo keeping veteran of 20 years.

Yes, that is my ass and yes, I worried about splitting those pants every single day

Tawny was of indeterminate age but you would recognize her as the older lady with the over-processed hair that was rockin' out at The Scorpions concert you attended in 9th grade. Although it was nearly 15 years ago I can still recall Tawny's hair, voice and hands. She spoke like Jeff Spicoli and had speckled, leathery hands that showed every minute of the 20 years she spent working in the desert sun. 

Imagine the hair a little bigger and replace the checkerboard Vans with a rake and the bagel
with a walkie-talkie and  you've pretty much got Tawny.  And add a Scorpions concert T shirt.

With the exception of one very brief moment, most of that day remains a blur to me.

Ah, but that one moment.

I toured the zoo with Tawny in a golf cart that looked to have been built during the Johnson administration. It had been converted to have a mini truck bed on the back in order to transfer big buckets of poop around zoo grounds. While we drove past- no joke- a 15 foot wall of shit Tawny referred to as the "compost" pile, she received a call on her walkie-talkie. The conversation went something like this:

Disembodied static-y voice on walkie-talkie: "The tiger just arrived."

Tawny: (to walkie-talkie voice) "We can be there in five minutes"


And then Tawny turned to me and asked, "You want to go see a tiger?"

 "Um, yeah. Ok", I said, super casual and all, AS IF PEOPLE ASKED ME TO SEE VISITING TIGERS EVERY FUCKING DAY.

So this part is a little fuzzy. All I know is that a new male tiger named, Dutch, had just arrived by truck after being hauled across the country for nearly a week. I had no role to play in the transfer of Dutch's 12 foot long shipping crate from the back of a truck and into the tiger night-house*.  I tried my best to stay out of the way during the hour long procedure.

(*A 'night-house' is zoo-speak for the small, decrepit building that zoo animals are locked into at night, usually located at the back of the exhibit. They are usually infested with rats, scorpions and cockroaches as well as the odd tiger or lion.)

By the time we arrived, all of the zookeepers involved in the tiger transfer process were already inside the night-house. Tawny led me through the night-house- it reminded me of old-timey, underground jail cells. Lots of concrete, little ventilation and a long, narrow hallway. The smell was not totally unpleasant, like how you imagine your house would smell if your cat weighed 200 pounds instead of 9 and he peed on your couch every time you got home late from work. And you have a swamp cooler. That needs servicing.

As we began to walk down the hall, Tawny stopped in her tracks and looked me straight in the eye. She told me to "stay close to this", and gestured to the decades-old concrete wall with chipping paint on my left side. Um, ok, whatever. I practically rolled my eyes but instead I followed her quickly down the hallway without another word between us. 

On the right side of the hallway was just a chain link fence that I could have touched if I had stretched my arm a bit. Behind the chain link was a cell about 10 x 15 feet. Much to my disappointment the room was completely void of tigers and I felt gypped. Because I was hired to be a  zoo keeper for the animals that were used for educational presentations to church groups, nursing homes and rich, three-year old birthday parties, I would be limited to working with small parrots, snakes and hedgehogs. Odds were pretty good (unless I was lucky enough to see one escape!) that if it didn't happen today, I would not be seeing a tiger at the zoo anytime soon.

At the end of the hallway I was safe from harm as well as any chance of watching the probably very pissed off tiger enter his exhibit for the very first time. And although I couldn't see the tiger, I could see the head zookeeper, watching the silent crate at the end of the hallway. He was armed with a shotgun (no, not a dart gun, a SHOTGUN) just in case the shit hit the fan. Oh, and all the doors were locked. We were locked in. With a tiger. A probably very pissed tiger.

Why were we locked in? says you. I'm glad you asked.
On the off chance that the tiger would escape, the doors would remain locked until the tiger could be "contained". Or until he ate everybody.

(*Spoiler alert No. 1: I did not get eaten by a tiger on this particular day, however, later in my career I was locked inside one of those small rooms with a 500 pound African lion that was unexpectedly waking up under anesthetic. This was done in order to contain him until the tranquilizer began to take full affect and so that he wouldn't eat the zookeeper manager. The manager had locked herself safely in the lion-free hallway while leaving us in the cage to die deal with the situation. Another time the same manager also locked me and some zookeepers in with a waking-up orangutan.  *Spoiler alert No. 2 : I did not get eaten by the African lion *Spoiler alert No. 3: I did not get eaten by the waking up orangutan) 

I gathered that Dutch had safely exited his crate and entered his new bedroom because I could hear the keepers at the end of the hallway speaking in hushed tones. I could hear some of them using their 'kitty' voices saying comforting things like, "Hi, Dutchy!", "Easy now, Dutch", "You're ok, buddy" and "If you're going to eat someone, please eat that stupid looking new girl down the hall", or something like that, I think. Maybe. Pretty sure.

Although I couldn't see him, I knew by the eyes of the motionless keepers standing at the end of the hallway, that Dutch was pacing around his new bedroom. And I was right- the low growl/rumble/low frequency demonic verses coming down the hallway were not sounds indicative of a happy kitty. I was pretty sure they were the sounds tigers made before eating people. 

Everyone seemed to exhale a sigh of relief as Dutch was finally secure in his night-house and everyone could leave.Tawny stood at the far end of the hallway from me and motioned for me to come down to where she stood. At that moment I realized why she seemed so Bruce Willis-y earlier when she told me to "stay close" to the wall side of the hallway.

I was going to have to walk past that furious fucking tiger.

And now the hallway seemed extra long.
And extra narrow.
And control over my bowels seemed iffy at best.

Now, in the very small world of people that work with wild animals, there's a fine line between brave and stupid and I knew I needed to straddle it carefully. Both my reputation and my safety were at risk. And maybe my undies. Walking too close would probably make Dutch even more uneasy in his new place and his reaction would be unpredictable (cower in a corner vs. eating through chain link in millisecond and then eating my head). Walking too close the wall on my right would imply that I was scared to walk past a tiger that was safely locked up, even if I wasn't (but I actually really was). 

What Would Jim (Fowler) Do?, I thought to myself. 
He would look cool, that's what he would do. Whatever he did, he would look cool. 

So, I did my best to walk coolly, calmly, quickly down the almost middle of the hallway, a touch or two closer to the wall on my right. I stared straight down the hall as I began to walk the 15 or so feet past Dutch's bedroom. 

And that's when that unforgettable moment happened.

I didn't see him spring from where he was pacing at the back of the bedroom or even jump up on his hind legs. What I did see was the face of Dutch, a full grown Sumatran tiger, roaring less than three feet from my face as I walked past. I don't remember how loud it was (though on later trips to the lion/tiger night-house I was impressed with the how loud the roars of the cats were), I just remember actually feeling the roar. In my chest. My chest actually vibrated. Or I had stress-induced heart palpitations. Either way, I remember it in my chest.

The rest of that day was a blur, the only other thing I remember was thinking throughout the entire day, I got a job at a zoo!  I got a job at a zoo! I got a job at a zoo!

Whether my underwear life changing experience was because I was concentrating too hard on not looking scared (but I actually was) or because Dutch was ninja-fast, I'll never know. All I do know is that it was the first of a handful of times my body reacted in a very visceral way in response to a perceived animal threat.

Years later going  down the narrow hall past the tiger 'bedroom' for a veterinary procedure.
The oxygen is just in case a new zookeeper passes out when an angry kitty roars at him/her

And so the second day on the job led to the next and the next. My job changed more than once while at the zoo and I even left the zoo a couple of times so I could goof around overseas for several years. More than ten years went by and I kept returning to that dream job.

What I do remember is that Dutch was the first animal I met on both his and my first day at the zoo. Many years later, by then working as a veterinary technician at the animal hospital on zoo grounds, I was beside Dutch during his final moments. And despite some dark days, like the day we said goodbye to Dutch, working at the zoo really was a once in a lifetime job. It was there I had the pleasure and honor of working with some of the most amazing zookeepers and incredible animals I've ever known.

And although I had a few more adrenalin rushes working with sick, injured or not-quite-anesthetized animals I never did poop in my pants. 

Poop on my pants. Yes, just about every day but it was never my poop.
Poop in my pants. Nope, not once.

I doubt even Jim Fowler can say that.


Click on any one of the links below to see what other blogger's 'dream job' experiences have been- It will probably give you insight at why so many bloggers are emotionally damaged/fragile people

Something Clever 2.0
Aspiring to the Middle
Cloudy With a Chance of Wine
I like beer and babies.
a calibama state of mind
Mom With Her Running Shoes On
The Insomniac's Dream

Each Thursday you'll have a chance to check out what a bunch of different crazed bloggers (redundant, I know) have to say about a particular topic.


  1. What a fun story to read! Glad you didn't get eaten:)

  2. I want to feel a tiger roar!!! This was a fun read, except when the boy kept interrupting me to ask why I was laughing.

  3. what a fantastic tale of a dream job! color me green - "touch a lion's mane" is on my bucket list!

  4. OMG, I was on the edge of my seat! What an awesome post! So glad you didn't get eaten OR poop your pants. Sounds like an awesome job...

  5. OK, you are my new hero. Secretly I would have enjoyed working at a zoo, but unfortunately there were no zoos remotely close to where I lived.

  6. I am in total awe. Seriously. YOU ROCK.

  7. Thanks for the love-
    Just don't think it was always awesome or I will tell you about the day we had to pull 500+ dead/dying fish from the zoo lake. I didn't poop my pants but I may as well have. I smelled so bad my boss kindly insisted that I take a shower and change my clothes!

  8. The spicoli reference had me rolling. I can't wait to share this with the hubby. glad you didn't soil your underwear ;) I would have commented earlier when I read this but those damn make sure your not a robot are really hard on my phone and it's stupid auto correct

  9. That was fantastic! You're a great story teller! I was like "what's going to happen...oh shit!"

  10. This is good stuff. Brought back some of my own memories. Bittersweet nostalgia. Thanks for that. :-)