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Words aren't enough: a zookeeper’s perspective

Posted by: Pattie Beaven, Zookeeper and Member of Puget Sound Chapter – American Association of Zoo Keepers

Zookeeper Pattie Beaven gives an elephant-sized shout out to American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). 

This week is a special week for many of us at the zoo. This week is National Zoo Keeper Week celebrated by the American Association of Zoo Keepers. So what's it mean to be a zookeeper? Words aren't enough to describe this amazing job and the amazing animals. You know that feeling you get when your dog wags its tail in greeting when you come home? Imagine having a pack of wolves greet you in a similar manner!

Wolf greetings. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Cats purr when they are content, and it can give us great pleasure to have our kitties sit in our laps, eyes closed, purring away. Now imagine having an 8,000-pound elephant purr with contentment upon seeing you. These are the joys of being a zookeeper.

An elephant gets a scrub from a zookeeper. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

When I was a small child I wanted to talk to the animals, and walk with the animals, and now, I'm actually my own version of Dr. Doolittle. I have swam with the animals, been graced by the presence of the most magnificent of creatures, and been touched in ways words can't describe.

Penguin keeper, Celine Pardo, mixes with the colony during feeding time. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Relationships require communication. How can you have a relationship with an animal if you can't communicate in their language? When you are communicating to your animals, you are not just communicating in a different language, you are communicating to an entirely different species. Dolphins don't even hear at the same frequency as humans. Elephants can hear sounds so infrasonic, we don't even understand. So words aren't enough. You have to use your mind, body posture, and your heart. You have to think like the animals. Then you are open enough to communicate with them.

Pattie and Spooky.

Every morning when I approached Spooky, a beluga whale I worked with at a different institution, she would buzz at me. She only buzzed a few of the staff, the fact that she only buzzed a few of the staff made it that much more special. Spooky taught me that if you really like someone, you should give them a buzz.

Pattie and Hekili.
I've learned what trainers mean when they refer to relationship building sessions as "putting money in the bank." I put a little "money" in each time I worked with Hekili, a bottlenose dolphin. We built a great rapport, and a couple years later, I was working another area when he severely injured himself. He would not come close enough to the edge in order to put him in a stretcher and take him to the vet. The only thing left to do for him was to catch him up in a restraint net. Due to my relationship with him I was asked to help with the catch up. Previously I had trained him to calmly let us put him in a stretcher. But that old adage "use it or lose it" is very true, and the behavior had not been practiced for a period of time. Would he remember it with me? Another keeper suggested I try to call him over I entered the beach area to find out. I slapped the water a couple times, my calling card to him. Hekili swam by me once, twice, and then performed a 180 degree turn hauling all the way up the beach and into my arms. I hugged him and rubbed his tail flukes. We were able to get him in the stretcher without any issue.

Putting money in the bank. If you put in just a little bit at a time, you'll find when you really need it, there's a lot there that you can withdraw.

Working hands-on with a dolphin.

Nowadays, at Woodland Park Zoo, I love watching our animals greet their favorite keepers in the morning. Elephants really do purr! It's a low rumbling noise, and it is a true sign of contentment they can express to us puny humans with pathetic hearing. Our oldest elephant Bamboo will actually vibrate her forehead when she's purring. She does it when you enter the barn, when you feed her, when you provide a new enrichment device or toy, and when she's excited. To see Bamboo get really really excited, bring in her favorite keeper, Chuck, out of retirement. The communication is crystal clear, even though words aren't exchanged at all. Bamboo will start squealing and purring, and then she (are you ready for this, folks?) pees. She gets so excited about seeing her friend, she pees herself.

Chuck and Bamboo. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.

Watoto, our African elephant, reserves most of her purrs for her favorite living being, Chai, our youngest elephant. Only those who have worked with her for many years are privileged to have Watoto purr at them. So, you will have to use your imagination to understand what it was like to have Watoto purr at me one morning, after two years working with her, soliciting a special rub around her ears. That moment was better than my high school and college graduations. It was even better than the day I was offered the job working with elephants.

Well, hello there. Photo by Dennis Conner/Woodland Park Zoo.

Being a zookeeper is a dream come true. We often say anyone can care for animals. You don't have to be a keeper to care. But a zookeeper is something special. We have our animals to thank for that. These are just my stories, every zookeeper has dozens like them. Want to hear about them? Stop by for a keeper chat to talk with one of our super fantastic zookeepers. And tell them how glad you are that they are there for the animals!


Unknown said…
Wonderful post. Chuck is my uncle. Going to the zoo hasn't been the same since he retired. You have a great job. Thank you for the work you do.
Anonymous said…
Great article Pattie, and yes Chuck misses his morning hugs and purr communication from his favorite elephant. Spending most of his 40 years with the elephants was an easy commitment. They are amazing animals with warm and loving spirits. He visits when he can, for that bond they formed will never be broken.