We Hate Pandas: 6 Realities Of Life As A Zookeeper
Zoos are elaborate prisons for animals who aren't delicious. But they're also possibly the best way to teach kids about animals and nature. So working at a zoo requires a delicate balance between warden, teacher, and occasional animal masturbator. We spoke to Knick Moore and Max, two veteran zookeepers, who helped explain what it's like to walk that thin and occasionally sticky line ...
Zookeepers Love Their Animals Like Pets And Take Their Deaths Hard
Anyone who's ever lost a family pet knows it feels like someone kicking your soul in the balls. So try to imagine how hard being a zookeeper must be, seeing as they form emotional bonds with hundreds of animals, with the full knowledge that one day they will watch them all die.
It's like being immortal and outliving everyone you love. Except you're not immortal. So, just sucky, then.
"It's always depressing when an animal dies," Knick Moore told us. "We had a lion that moved to the zoo at the same time a zookeeper started there in the early '80s. When he died, the keeper got a huge tattoo of him on her arm. But the bird keepers had to deal with death a lot more often [since] baby-bird mortality is high." The lounge can get pretty morose during the spring months, when the birds are born and a bunch die.
And it's sad enough when an animal passes away quietly, but sometimes, disaster strikes. Like the time a pack of stray dogs snuck into an enclosure and killed a bunch of adorable mini-antelopes where Knick used to work. But it can get even worse than that.
You could skip to the next section if you like. It's about poop!
"I was called in at 4:30 a.m. to an old giraffe that had fallen down," Max told us. "It couldn't get back up, and when a giraffe does that, then that's it." So after the zoo euthanized the animal, it was up to Max to do his best Leatherface impression and dismember it with a freaking chainsaw so that it could be incinerated in the zoo furnace. "This is like talking about a relative's funeral," Max added, tearing up.
If we had to chop up our beloved pet with a chainsaw, we'd only stop crying after our bodies literally ran out of water.
Zookeepers Are Awash In Poop
According to Max, shoveling, collecting, and analyzing animal excrement is easily half of a zookeeper's job, mostly because they use poop to diagnose sick animals, like that scene in Jurassic Park.
No, not that scene.
Sometimes, Max and his co-workers would even play party games with crap: "A fellow keeper used to hold parties at her apartment. One of the party games was Guess The Shit. She had brought tons of animal shit from work, and we had to guess what animal it came out of. And of course everybody nailed it because we all have intimate knowledge of feces of all kinds."
Max says carnivore shits in particular are terrible: "The organ meats [that the carnivores eat] are usually really bloody. This bloody diet causes melena, or tarry stools, which look like melted, black bubblegum and smell kind of like death."
Meanwhile, the vegans keep walking around like their shit doesn't stink.
But they weren't the worst kind. "Kangaroo poop is the silent killer," Max told us. "It looks like small cat turds and is pretty inoffensive (as crap goes), until you step in it and don't notice. Then you get in your car, turn on the floor heat, and start cooking it. That's when the smell hits you. I've nearly run off the road trying to stop and get my boots off because the stench was so overwhelming."
Thankfully, they left that part out of those old Hippety Hopper cartoons ...
The Animals Don't Behave Like Pop Culture Shows Them
Whenever a zoo gets a new panda bear, everybody goes nuts about it, including zookeepers. However, this honeymoon period lasts about a year, until the zookeepers realize just how infuriatingly useless pandas are. Max explains:
"Fuck pandas. The panda is the most poorly designed animal I've ever seen. God does not like that animal. Everything is stacked against it. They don't like each other so they sometimes end up killing one another during mating."
Anything to avoid making more of these weird scrotum-rat things.
Max's views are shared by some prominent naturalists, who also point out that even the pandas' diet is stupid, as bamboo (their preferred snack of choice) is very poor in nutrients and frequently dies out.
And now that we've successfully proven how unrealistic Kung Fu Panda is, allow us to ruin The Lion King for you. At Max's old zoo, he says, "The lions have started to recognize the vet's truck by sight. When it pulled up to the lion house, they wouldn't come out no matter what. They learned that the truck meant something bad will happen, like shots. They did NOT want to go to the doctor."
Only one movie got lions right.
In fact, if The Lion King was a tad more realistic, then Pumbaa would be the one who saves the day in the end, because, according to Max, warthogs are super smart:
"I once worked on an exhibit with a pair of warthogs that were digging up the grass in their enclosure, so we secured the grassy area with an electric fence. The male warthog would come up to the fence, hit the live wire, and scream. But then he just sat there, studying it. He then approached it again and touched the fence with his tusk, realizing that it doesn't hurt then. So he used his tusks to rip a hole in the fence, get to the other side, and tear up the grass."
"'Hakuna matata' means 'fuck your grass.'"
However, when it comes to underrated animals, Max says, there's none better than the rhino. "Everyone thinks they are these great huge lumbering beasts with no self-control, but they are actually thoughtful, careful, elegant, intelligent individuals that can bond with a human much like a dog -- similar intelligence as well.
"Currently, rhinos are being hunted to extinction because of the ass-backwards belief that their horn (which is made of keratin, same as your fingernails and hair) has medicinal properties." Maybe if we rebrand rhino poaching as "a bunch of assholes killing giant unicorn dogs," we can put a stop to it.
There Are So Many Dicks Of So Many Sizes
Do you spend much time thinking about ostrich penises?
Probably not. "Most birds don't have penises," says Knick. "Both sexes have cloaca, which they literally bump uglies with to mate." But a few species are extra blessed. Ducks are one screwy exception to the no-dong rule, and ostriches are another. So when an ostrich slips from its enclosure into a drainage ditch after a heavy rain, Knick and his team don't just find themselves dodging pecks and kicks and a six-foot, crap-covered wingspan -- they have to watch out for the flailing 16-inch bird erection:
"Bird cock can be ignored," says Knick with determined optimism, "but giraffe? For starters, it's already at eye-level." So while many animals can mate at any moment, giraffes grab the most attention and offend the most sensitive visitors. "I'd wander around the corner with a school group of 80 kids plus parents and teachers to see our male moments away from sealing the deal with one of the females. Kids always found it hilarious (and they are correct; it's like watching two NBA players try to do it standing in the shower), but adults would get pissed. 'Sir! The giraffe's *penis* is out!' Honestly, what do you want done?"
Monkeys are renowned masturbators, of course, and they seem to save up their sexual energy, tantric-style, 'til 30 visitors are watching them. "There was also a burro in the petting zoo that would get excited really easily, and you'd have to stop kids from grabbing it, which he didn't seem to mind." But for all the time Knick spent saving kids from getting sprayed with semen, zookeepers also need animal semen, for breeding, research, and tests. And since not all animals are amenable to being jacked off mechanically, he'd turn to the process known as rectal electro ejaculation.
Personally, we recommend the Pulsator IV.
For instance, on otters. "The otters are given a mild sedative and an electric probe is inserted to the prostate and fired off two to three times until the otter comes. This is cute as hell." The sedative is essential, because this is otherwise the least-enjoyable orgasm the beast will ever have. "If someone came and grabbed you out of your house, took you to a bright, cold room, laid you on a metal table and jammed a tube in your butt, you'd probably not look forward to it just because you came at the end. That's got to be something you request specifically and have the capacity to utter a safe word over."
Animal Diets Are Extremely Carefully Managed
Contrary to what zoo visitors seem to think, animals don't live off the peanuts and pretzels you slip them behind the keeper's back. That stuff kills them. One of Knick's giraffes ate crap from camera-happy tourists' hands, then stones formed in his bladder. His whole body inflamed with infection. "Despite emergency surgery, he still died," says Knick. "Keep that picture in your head next time you get yelled at for offering something your shitty nachos."
That's two dead giraffe stories now. Which is probably two more than you ever wanted to read.
The real food gets trucked into the zoo once a month by an 18-wheeler. "Mice and rats arrive wrapped exactly like hotdogs or chicken legs in the supermarket. Rabbits are frozen solid and vacuum-sealed and hurt when you drop one on your foot. Horse comes in as a giant log of ground meat."
The horse is for the big cats, mostly. Short of slaughtering caged gazelle, it's the closest the zoo can get to the meat lions eat in Africa (beef is much too fatty). For treats, cats get those rabbits -- they lick off the fur then crunch the bunnies up, which is surprisingly different in one respect from what documentaries show. "The audio is cut out of a lot of those nature shows when the cheetahs or lion actually catches something and starts eating it," says Knick. "Those powerful jaws make a lot of noise when pulverizing a skull."
And with those ears, you know every bunny for miles can hear it.
Sometimes, animals score a different treat. When it's hot, elephants get giant popsicles made from veggies frozen in a Rubbermaid trashcan of water, and lions get their own version: bloodsicles.
Now with 75 percent of your daily recommended intake of blood.
The acceptable reaction to this photo is an "aww" that slowly escalates into a scream.
Some Animals Are Escape Artists
Even when a zoo is run perfectly, with zero abuse, protesters still have two big objections: 1) "Animals must hate being gawked at all day," and 2) "Animals must really hate being imprisoned." As to the first of those, sure, you value your privacy, and you probably also value your freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean a flamingo values either.
Flamingos care about only two things: fish and being fabulous.
"Most of the animals were pretty indifferent about being looked at unless people irritated them," says Knick. "There were a few that loved attention, though." Those exhibitionist monkeys, for starters, and others. "I remember a yellow crested cockatoo named Charlie that would pretend to ignore you if you talked to it and then fly over to where you were when you started to leave and start chatting away until you came back. Big cats could be creepy fun to watch when toddlers wandered by. If the kid was running back and forth, they'd take up a stalking posture and start tracking them."
If you can forget the sound of skull-crunching, it's adorable.
But, Knick says, there's a lot of truth to the animals disliking cages. As proof, he offers Evelyn and Jim, some super-intelligent escape gorillas: "Once Evelyn had Jim lift her up so she could climb out and watch the elephants for half an hour," says Knick. "Jim, on the other hand, prefers just tearing the door off its hinges." The real genius could be Karta the orangutan, who short-circuited her electric fence with a stick, built a ramp with brush, and climbed out. The whole zoo was evacuated out of fear, but when Karta ran into a bigger fence she couldn't cross, she headed back to her cage.
Last we heard, Karta hooked up with a certain warthog, and they've opened their own electrician's shop.
"We had some gibbons on an island in the middle of pretty good-sized pond," says Knick. "The only way to access it was via a bateau that the keeper had to row out to the island every day to drop off food. One day, a new keeper made her first solo trip to the island and forgot to pull the boat completely onshore. The gibbons waited until her back was turned and piled in, forcing her to wade out and grab the towline before they could make it to the mainland."
Had she not acted quickly enough, the fugitives would have been unstoppable, and we'd doubtless be writing this article in Gibberish.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ryan Menezes is an editor and interviewer. Follow him on Twitter. Knick doesn't work at the zoo anymore, but he did write this book, vaguely based on what he learned there, and also hosts the Dorque Podcast, which you can find here.
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