Keeper Notes: Animal Sense– Can You Learn It?

I was going to post this to my National Geographic blog and then I stopped and caught myself. “Would this topic be appropriate for that audience?” Perhaps not. This is more appropriate for the zoo professional– rookies and veterans alike.

The point that I’m going to make, I hope, is that animal sense is all about common sense.  And common sense can be learned. Now there will be some critics out there, many of them with common sense and of course, years of experience. Some of them even think they have the best animal sense in the world. A few even believe they are god’s gift to their animal charges.  And then there are those who lead you to believe that they never had a pet of their own at home and are just about to board another train, or should I say train wreck.

The truth is that animal sense is an acquired trait.  You probably have some colleagues who grew up on a farm. My guess is that they have pretty good animal sense. They have a particular intuition.  They seem to have an innate appreciation for the flight distance of the animals in their care and those in their colleagues care. They are likely some of the first keepers done with their daily routines.  And yes, they managed to disinfect the stalls just as is requested on the keeper boards and just as often as you do.

The problem is that what they know comes from exposure and experience that you just can’t read out of a book.  Put them on a subway in Manhattan and see how they respond to urban wildlife.

I became much more husbandry savvy after working on beef cattle stations, dairy farms and sheep ranches through various jobs in animal science and veterinary science programs.  And this was after I was already working as a full-time animal keeper.

Unfortunately, not every rookie zoo keeper has enough time off to spend vacation hours rotating through assignments at the nearest livestock or poultry facility.

The other problem is that managers often permit certain behaviors to perpetuate indefinitely.  The irony of course is that we now train animals in protected contact to perform some amazing tasks for the purposes of management, presentation, and research, but we rarely take the time to help change the behavior of some of our colleagues or subordinates.

It all starts with a willingness to address the problem and the patience to allow for a change in behavior. It comes back to emotional intelligence and people skills.

I’m not sure if the Animal Keepers’ Forum still publishes the column People Skills for Animal People, but I highly recommend it.

More to come…..

Jordan Schaul

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