Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why Being a Zookeeper is Pretty Freaking Awesome

I feel like I don't even really need to write this post. And yet, I will.

There are a lot of reasons being a zookeeper is Pretty Freaking Awesome. Just like there are a lot of reasons it's a tough job. Working with animals is rewarding and frustrating. But here are some of the best perks:

You get to meet the MOST interesting people. Ha! Bet you thought all the perks would be about animals, huh?

Believe it or not, even on my more introverted days, some of my favorite work moments come from the people who visit us. Why? Because...

You get to make a difference. Zoos, back in their infancy, used to be displays of wealth and power. Shows, menageries, circuses, royal collections. But over time, zoos have discovered their true purpose: to educate the public about the animals that live there. When you walk into a responsible, accredited zoo, you should do more than see animals. You should learn to love them, the places they come from, and this planet we live on. Every single day I go to work, I get the chance to show people those things. I get to share the love I have for this planet and its inhabitants with every face I talk to. Whether they listen or not is up to them, but at least I get to try.

Plus, there are some really cool people out there who have done some really cool things. And I love hearing about them.

It's awesome working for a place that literally makes a difference in the world we live in. When I go home at night, I know that I haven't just done my job. I've helped climate change. I've encouraged a donation that might save a cheetah, or a tiger, or a lion's life. I've changed someone's mind about buying rhino horn or a tiger pelt next time they're in Asia.

I've told someone why it's important to keep certain weeds in their yard, and turn off their porch lights when they go to bed.

You get to learn so much. I LOVE learning. LOVE it. My job is awesome because I get to actually use the knowledge I've amassed over the years. (As a side note, I get to use a lot of my favorite skills in my job, too-- public speaking, time management, interpretation, etc.). And I never, ever, stop learning. I pick up new facts every day. The animals teach me something new every day.

You get to work with like-minded people. Zoos are FULL of people who are just as passionate about animals and the environment as you are. If you love either of those (and really, you can't just love one or the other, they are irrevocably intertwined), it's awesome having a workplace where everyone feels exactly the same about those things as you. There's no awkward conversation because everyone is already on the same page.

Of course, the best part:

You get to work with animals. I said before that there's not very much time for this. But there is some. And those moments? Are the best of my day.

I play with babies, snuggle pocket-sized marsupials, scritch antelope backs, talk to parrots, handle the world's second largest frog, maneuver pythons into my arms, and pet animals we didn't even know existed a hundred years ago. I go to work every day and see things I would never see in my lifetime otherwise, and I am so, so thankful that they let me do my job. Some days, I can't believe they PAY me for it.

So. Being a zookeeper?

It's not an easy job, no. But it is, to me at least, the best job in the world.

Being a writer is a pretty close second, though. :)

Interested in pursuing a career as a zookeeper? See my ultimate guide here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Being a Zookeeper Isn't Always a Dream Job

I've declared this week, while I wait on The Writer's Voice to happen, The Week of Whys. You'll see . . . why . . . as we go.

Don't let the title of our first post fool you-- I love my job. LOVE. L.O.V.E. it.

But there are a lot of things about my job that people don't always understand or expect, and if you or anyone you know is considering a job in this field, I suggest you point them this way.

Zookeeping, and animal care in general, is a highly desirable field to work in. It seems obvious why, especially if you love animals. After all, zookeepers must do nothing but the fun stuff, right? They must just spend all day hugging penguins (scarier than it sounds) and riding lions (not a thing), right?

Er. Well. Not right.

Here's why being a zookeeper is a tough, tough job.

Animals get hurt, sick, old, and eventually, they die. There's simply no way around this truth. Even working with some of the best exotic animal vets in the world (which I do; I would trust our vets with my life and the lives of my pets, who are akin to my children), sometimes there's just nothing you can do. Zoo animals live on average up to 40% longer than their wild counterparts, but at some point even the most long-lived animal will simply succumb to time. We do everything we can, but it's not always enough. Accidents happen. Diseases happen. Fate happens.

This, is the hardest part. Rest assured, as sad as you may be to hear an animal at your local zoo has died, the staff that worked there, poured their sweat and blood and energy and love into that animal, are sadder.

It sucks, to work with an animal for years, sometimes since birth, and watch them grow old and die. We carry these hurts with us in tiny little pockets in our heart. No matter how long ago, we will always remember.

If you want to work in a zoo, be prepared.

Animals are hard to take care of. Well, this seems obvious, but it's not always. There really is no "easy" zoo animal. Some are easier than others, sure, but to give the animals the level of care our standards call for requires a lot more work than you'd think. I work with a lot of terrarium type enclosures that seem easy because they're small. But they all get completely stripped out, washed down, and replaced every day or every other day. Before, when I worked with penguins, we would completely melt the ice in a half to a third of the exhibit and blow in fresh snow every morning.

If you want to work with ocean animals, it's a bit easier as hoses and filtration tend to do a lot of the work for you. But there's still hundreds of pounds of fish to thaw, bucket, carry, and feed out.

There's so much diversity in land animals that pretty much every species requires different care. Every species gets its own daily menu at my zoo, and part of my job is "cooking" for all of them. Imagine working in a restaurant where the menu is different for each customer that walks in.

Frogs require wearing special gloves to prevent us contaminating them with a deadly fungus. Elephants can drop about 150 lbs of manure each, PER DAY. Some animals eat a thin slurry that gets everywhere and dries to the consistency of cement and has to be scrubbed off each and every morning. Antelope poo comes out in little balls that range from sunflower seed size to chocolate covered cashew size, and we have to rake it all up. Bales of hay weigh over a 100 pounds, and yes, we do have to move them on our own. We cut thick branches off of trees we farm for the purpose of feeding. We clean dishes, we sweep floors, we dust, we mop, we empty the trash. We have to work in weather that reaches below freezing and over 100 degrees, in the full sun, in the rain, on holidays, on weekends, early in the morning and late, late at night. Some animals can kill you. Some animals can make you very sick. Some animals can cripple you for life.

We never have soft hands.

When people ask about our jobs, we want to share, but sometimes, it's just overwhelming knowing where to start, what to say.

There isn't a lot of time for snuggles. What most people don't realize about zookeeping is that we spend so much of our day just taking care of the animals that we don't have much time left over for what we all got into the field to do: spend time with the animals. But, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. My zoo concentrates on breeding, and animals behave more naturally without humans interfering all the time and influencing their behavior. They get the attention from us that they need, but this isn't the job for you if all you want to do is bond and play with animals.

You will still have to deal with people. A lot of people start out wanting to get into this field because they aren't "people" people. But, uh, bad news. You actually HAVE to be a people person to work in this field because a.) you will always work with the public in some capacity, and b.) you will still have to work with your co-workers. It will never just be you and the animals.

It's not an easy job to get. In fact, it's getting harder and harder to get into this field. There are plenty of sources out there for how to get into it, but the more research you do, the better off you'll be. More and more often, you have to be a jack of all trades to work here. Expand your horizons and apply, apply, apply. My own two cents? It's 90% about your attitude (after your qualifications). Be confident, but nothing is below you. If you don't believe me, see paragraph above again about spending most of our day cleaning up poo.

So. Still want to be a zookeeper? Good. If you've read this far and it still sounds awesome, then you're probably one of the right people for the job.

It IS rewarding. More on that later this week :)

Edit: check out my companion post here: Why being a zookeeper is pretty freaking awesome.

Interested in pursuing a career as a zookeeper? See my ultimate guide here.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Writer's Voice Entry: SEVEN LITTLE DEADLIES

I'm doing something a bit strange today, friends. Basically, if you're here from the dark creeping crevices of the internet (or, you know, the bright and sunny ones), feel free to ignore this post. If you're here from The Writer's Voice contest, and especially if you're a JUDGE for said contest, why, hello there!

*offers comfy seat*

*passes cookie*

*pours fizzy pink lemonade*

Okay, okay. The rest of you can have cookies and lemonade, too. Here you go.

Without further ado, my entry, SEVEN LITTLE DEADLIES, a young adult supernatural romance.


Rachel and her boyfriend, Ryan, each have their own reasons for running. For Rachel, it's the morphing of her normally annoying-but-genial stepdad into a violent monster. For Ryan, it's his past-- one that he's not too fond of sharing.

The night Rachel's stepdad tries to kill her, the teens decide to leave their small Tennessee town and strike out for California in Ryan's '68 Camaro. But the further they get from home, the more strange things Rachel sees—like a leather-clad woman who has a thing for classic cars, and can apparently change the weather—and the more she begins to wonder about her boyfriend.

Despite their best efforts, their freedom is short-lived. Not long after they make it to California, Rachel's stepdad catches up to them, ending Ryan's life and changing Rachel's forever.  But things only get stranger after Rachel returns home. First, there are the hints that Ryan might not be dead after all. Then, there's the mysterious package that shows up at her door, containing a dagger she last saw buried in her stepdad's back. Something evil is brewing, and Rachel—and the car Ryan left behind—are in the middle of the storm.

SEVEN LITTLE DEADLIES is a young adult supernatural romance complete at 87,000 words.

First 250 words:

Chapter 1
July: New Mexico

 The cop car stayed behind us for forty miles.

Ryan's brow creased every time he glanced in the rearview mirror, and his knuckles were white on the steering wheel.

"Do you think he's running our plates or something?" I tried to keep my voice steady--panicking wouldn't help keep Ryan calm—but my throat clenched around the last word and squeaked into the silence around us.

"I don't know, Rachel. He could just be following us." He sighed, and unclenched one hand long enough to run it through his curly black hair. "But he's been back there for an awful long time."

"Maybe we should pull over." I didn't want to tell Ryan, but the tension was ready to burst out of me. If we didn't get away from the cop soon, I was going to have a meltdown.

"Pull over where?" He waved one arm across the dashboard, gesturing at the empty plains on either side of the cracked four-lane highway, rimmed by unending barbed-wire fences on either side.

Defeated, I wrapped my arms tighter around my midriff and sank further into my seat, the cop car dropping out of sight in the side mirror.

"I hate New Mexico." I muttered to myself. Ryan overheard, as usual. He grabbed my left elbow and tugged on my arm until I looked over at him.

"Hey," he said. His dimples peeked out of his cheeks, which meant the grin there was real. "We're almost there."