Juvenile Masai giraffe, Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, FL. Copyright Audrey R. Smith 2013.
I wrote this years ago, after a particularly frustrating day of telling visitors to the zoo where I worked not to throw things to the animals, to take their child off the perimeter fence over the alligator exhibit, please stop making monkey sounds or “here kitty kitty” calls to the animals, etc…All the things that come with working at a zoo. Some days you say that stuff more than others, and this day, I had to ask myself, “How could I put the animals’ situations in a way that people would understand that they are being rude? That coming to the zoo is not a free-for-all for those who enter, and that they need to exhibit (pun!) at least a small amount of decorum; after all, they are “visitors,” or “guests.” ” So here is what every animal in every zoo wishes the visitors would bear (another pun!) in mind when they walk through the zoo gates…
A Zoo Animal’s Plea:
“As you walk through the zoo, looking at each of us and pointing us out to your family and friends, we all ask that each visitor bear in mind a few things:
I am a zoo animal. My job is to be here so that you can learn about me, and encourage and teach others that I am worth saving. Please remember that while I might sometimes enjoy attention, I, like you, have days where I would prefer to be left alone. Keep in mind that while I am here for you to look at, I don’t necessarily want to pose for every camera. When you whistle, hoot, clap, or shout, remember that I have heard that same sound a hundred times already that day and each day before that, and that is why I decided to ignore you. When I am hiding from everyone and you are upset that you didn’t see me, remember that you also have days when you want to leave work early or call in sick. Keep in mind that just because my species is known for its ferocity does not mean that I am going to eat you. Likewise, just because my species is known to be placid does not mean that I won’t defend myself if I feel I should. Know that I don’t necessarily want to be touched; poking, punching, tapping, and other sudden contact might make me upset with you, and I come equipped with a full set of teeth and claws, horns and hooves, or some other aspect of my physiology that makes me so successful at surviving in my native habitat. Please remember that I may be old, or sick, or having a bad day. I may have just come from seeing the vet, and may be sore or groggy. I may have arthritis, or I may have just had babies. I also might be new here, and find all of this very frightening. While small children may not know better, tapping on the glass gives us headaches, and we ask that the adults in each group teach the younger ones not to do it. Know that while this fence protects you, it is also here to ensure my safety and its boundaries must be respected. Remember that I am a wild animal, not an exotic pet or conversation piece. I have instincts I follow and behaviors I can’t unlearn. Just because you fed some of us in the zoo when you were a kid does not mean that it is still permitted. We are all on special diets that fit the nutritional requirements of our kind, and anything you feed us–including popcorn, candy, hot dogs, and chips–could possibly kill us. Remember that I am here as an ambassador for my species. Without me, most people have never seen another one of my kind and may never visit my homeland. Many of my wild cousins face challenges for the species’ survival, and conservation is their only hope. Know that the entire zoo staff is here because they feel a connection to all of us, and strive to do the best they can with what they have. Know that this facility, as well as every aspect of my life are scrutinized by several different agencies and must meet certain criteria. If my care is not up to their standards, I could be taken away from here. Please understand that my keepers have gone to school for years in order to care for me. They work long hours, and have student loans, second and third jobs, and used cars. Their days consist of hard labor, often in harsh conditions like snow or excruciating heat. Rest assured that I am monitored seven days a week, 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. I see the vet when I am sick, and for regular check-ups. I get all my vaccines, have my food planned and prepared for me, and am provided enrichment to make things interesting at least once each day. If something breaks in my home, it is fixed; if something needs to be replaced, it is. Know that my keepers are poorly paid, but lose sleep every night to worry about me if I didn’t eat, use the bathroom, or drink enough water that day; know that my wellbeing is their whole life. And finally, please remember that I am a living, breathing creature. I can feel pain, anger, joy, and sorrow. There are things that please me and things that scare me. I may be looking at you from the other side of the fence, but my job is to help you understand things, and I deserve your respect no matter my size, shape, or place in the world.