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Working with Animals

As a Zookeeper, I am fortunate to be able to work closely with many different species of animals on a daily basis. There are also countless other animals throughout the zoo that I do not regularly interact with, but occasionally get to visit. 

Training is huge part of these animals lives. They are trained for simple behaviours such as shifting in and out of different spaces so that the keepers can safely work around them. Many are trained to voluntarily participate in various aspects of their care, such as presenting different body parts for inspection, receiving injections or having blood taken. All of this type of training is done in order to give the animal choice and control over as many aspects of their lives as possible in order to minimize stress and provide the best welfare possible. 

Another aspect of providing the best welfare for animals under human care is to ensure that they have enough mental stimulation. A wild animal has to work very hard to survive: searching for food, finding shelter, avoid predators, the list goes on. All of this requires a lot of mental effort. In the zoo, many of these tasks are not necessary. Food, shelter and safety are all within easy reach of a zoo animal and they do not necessarily have to exert much mental effort to attain these things. The job of a good zookeeper is to provide these things, while also encouraging species appropriate behaviour that mimics much of what the animal would have to do in the wild. 

One way this is accomplished is through what is usually refered to as Environmental Enrichment. This takes many forms such as housing animals within species-appropriate group, providing a variety of spaces for them to live in with natural substrates, presenting their food in such a way that they have to search for it in a similar manner to what wild animals of their species would be doing. All of these things (and more) help to provide a level of mental stimulation for the animals, encouraging behaviour that would be similar to what is seen in the wild.

Training is another way to provide this mental stimulation. While animals are often trained to perform specific behaviours that are not usually seen in the wild (I have trained a raven to play connect 4!), the process of learning these behaviours is extremely beneficial for the animals as it challenges them to think, make connections, and move their bodies in natural ways. 

This is where art comes in - many animals are trained to paint! This looks very different depending on the species. Some species that are quite dextrous with thier hands (eg. Gorillas and Orangutans) are trained to use their fingers or even a paint brush to pick up paint and put it on a canvas. Other species are simply taught to walk through some paint on the ground, and then walk over a canvas. 

One of my favourite things so far that I have been able to do as a Zookeeper and an Artist is to combine my art with the art of the animals I work with! 

Pawprints painted by 'Hari' the Sumatran Tiger
Pawprints painted by 'Ena' the Snow Leopard
Hippo "Kiss" painted by 'Petal' the River Hippo