Springfield Zoo (Screen shot: The Simpsons / Fox)
Monkeys escaping, frozen-rat puppet shows, and rearing big cats at home: These are zookeepers’ weirdest stories.
The decency of British zoos has been called into question. It was revealed in February that a zoo in Cumbria—which has since been denied a new license—saw nearly 500 animals die in less than four years. The same zoo was fined for health and safety breaches last year over the death of 24-year-old Sarah McClay, who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger.
Obviously this is clearly a zoo with a terrible approach to animal welfare, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one guilty of mistreating animals. While humans have a rich history of putting cuddly creatures in cages and paying to look at them, criticism of zoos is nothing new. In the early 1990s, zoos in the UK were in crisis, suffering a huge drop in visitor numbers because three-quarters of Britons were opposed to animals in captivity.
In the spirit of public interest and always wanting to know gross and weird stories, we spoke to people who work—or recently worked—in the UK zoo industry to find out what the public doesn’t know about zoos.
I worked in a conservation zoo, where the main objective was to breed the animals and then put them back into the wild. We were really understaffed, though, so you’d be trained in tons of different things in case you had to be rushed somewhere else. They were low on money, but instead of investing in the animals or staff, the owner started spending on attractions to keep customers coming. To me, that makes no sense.
The little monkeys would always escape, and obviously when an animal escapes in a zoo, everything has to be shut down, because people will try to pet the animal and get bitten. We’d herd everyone to be locked away in rooms. One particular day, tons of monkeys escaped, and they were just running everywhere and jumping on everything, and I was trying to call on the radio and get everyone to rush up and help. The freakiest thing that ever happened was when a lion managed to get into the area where the keeper would feed it, and I remember having to stay away from there. It took forever for things to go back to normal after that.
– Sandy, 25
WATCH: An Inside Look at the Exotic Animal Trade
People don’t realize that animals can be quite horny. We had a bird that basically fucked my head whenever it got the chance. There was another hand-reared bird that used to make stupid noises and always hump my shoulder and then jizz all over it. He wasn’t even that big, just a savage little fucker, but because he was so tame, we could take him around with us when it was quiet. I think we all had scars on our shins from that bastard—he had nasty fits. I remember this one time he got "all excited" at the shop front desk and jizzed all over the counter. He had such a funny orgasm face—his pupils would go big and small really quickly.
Most establishments I’ve worked for have always had workers under the age of 18, so no one has qualifications, and yet you’re looking after some of the rarest species in the world. It’s all down to pay. If you have young people working, you’re going to get a lot of silliness, and we were silly.
– Polly, 35
Potentially Illegal Cuteness
I was given a medium-size wild cat to take home as a baby and rear, which surely would have been against the Dangerous Wild Animals Act because you’d need a license. She could’ve been dangerous. She’d been swiped from her parents at a very vulnerable age—maybe seven weeks old—when she’d already bonded with them. The welfare issues of that were just terrible. It was a great experience for me as someone who works with animals but very tricky.
It’s easy to remember the bad stuff, but there was so much cuteness. You’d come in in the morning, and you’d be checking on the animals, and if you knew an animal was due to give birth, one day you’d arrive and be like, "What’s that?!" and then this little face would peer up at you. Baby!
– Amy, 37
My colleague told me this story a couple of years after it happened. He came in really early in the morning and was trying to steal money for the bus fare home, and he crept up to a very big bird —I won’t say the breed—and shouted "raaah" at it. Birds are really prone to shock and stress. The sleeping fella’s heart exploded. It dropped dead. All the animals that die need to have a postmortem so you can say the cause of death, and the postmortem was heart rupture. But then that’s what you get if you hire a bunch of young kids and don’t get older, more responsible people who are qualified.
Like most people in this line of work, I ended up going to college to learn more about animals and now realize how bad zoos are, really. At the time, I knew the animals were bored. I’d do things like lob a load of mealworms and crickets all over the floor to give animals something to do, which the boss wasn’t too happy about it.
I think the public do care about animals, but they just fight for the wrong things. They’d say something like, "Oh, that animal’s on its own—that’s cruel," when actually that animal is supposed to be on it’s own; if you put another one in there, they’d probably kill one another. But then they think an animal is being cute when it’s actually showing signs of very stressed-out behavior.
– Jane, 38
Kraków Zoo, which isn’t the subject of any of the stories in this article, but conveniently does have a big "ZOO" sign out front. Photo by Radoslaw Nowak via Wikipedia
We’d get all the dead rats, rabbits, and mice out—the ones you’d feed all the animals with—and when you pull all the mice out, they are all in little poses from how they were frozen. We made a little stage and would do puppet shows with them. We’d say, "This one looks like a ballerina. This one looks all coy."
There was a freezer of dead animals that you would sell to science-based companies or taxidermy people, and you’d get the iguanas out, and they’d be frozen in perfect ice lolly pop shape. We’d get them out and spin them on their tails.
Most owners are clueless if the zoos are privately owned, and this one I worked at was. The owner was trying to build up his species diversity, so he used to go and buy different birds. One day, he came in with this weird, rare, pink type of bird, but it wasn’t actually that bird. And he put it on display as this rare type of species, but it was just a regular bird that had been spray-painted.
– Adam, 32
An Awful Place to Be
Part of the job was about keeping the animals alive, and the other part was doing enrichment strategies, which was supposed to alleviate the boredom. The trouble is no amount of enrichment can ever replicate what an animal will feel like in the wild. So you’d do feeds and open up the enclosures, and then by the time you’ve gone round and fed all the animals, it’s time to feed again. I found there was no chance to do enrichment strategies because I was always cleaning up poo.
Working with the giraffes was awful as they were stuck in these tiny enclosures, and sometimes they don’t even go out—and I remember thinking, This is absolutely horrendous. We had spider monkeys, and one of my zookeepers once had to throw visitors out because one of them had literally given the monkeys cigarettes. Another time, I saw a kid rattling a parrot’s bar until it fell down. You see enclosures with loads of litter in them, and you see people mocking the animals, especially the monkeys. It’s absolutely horrendous.
At any zoo you go to, you see the tigers pacing and the animals grinding their teeth and chewing the bars down. This all looks cute and normal to the average zoo visitor, but it’s actually something called "stereotypy." They are the behaviors that the animals perform because they get so frustrated. Since working there, I’ve set up a website about animal welfare called the "Happy Orca," because I believe that zoos are fundamentally really wrong.
– Nova, 36
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