Posts tagged ‘primates’

Types of Zoo Keepers

Zoo keeping seems to select for a certain type of human. Not surprisingly, zookeepers are animal lovers first and foremost. That seems reasonable and quite frankly, expected, but not in a well balanced, socially healthy sort of way. Please, understand, this is a self-deprecating comment because I have dedicated my life to taking care of animals in zoos and sanctuaries. That being said, zookeepers are a group of people who do not tend to thrive in interpersonal relations. They feel disenfranchised or separated from humanity and find solace in the satisfaction of being needed unconditionally by animals. Some keepers will protest this assertion, but those are the ones that will illustrate my point. There are varying degrees to this hypothesis, which, oddly, directly corresponds to the animals for which the keeper cares.
There is a distinct correlation between how this is expressed and how the animal the keeper cares for behaves. Cat keepers, for example, tend to keep to themselves and are quietly watching and gathering information about those around them. They are not extroverts and you may think they don’t like you at first. Once they have fully assessed a situation and person and feel comfortable, they are very gregarious and pleasant people to be around, much like the felines for which they care.
Bird keepers are pleasant, happy, whistle while you work type of people. They are the first to greet a new person and you can almost see them fluff up their feather when they are happy and excited, which is often. You will find the odd, bird of prey type bird keeper. For details on their personalities see the reptile keeper description.
Reptile keepers may be the hardest nuts to crack. They are loners and perhaps the most disenfranchised of all keepers. The least interested in humans and their wacked out methods, reptile keepers do not suffer fools or anything warm blooded for that matter. They are the geniuses of the keeper world. Their intelligence seems to naturally separate them from the folly of most humans and they find solace in the predictable world of reptiles. Working with reptiles is predictable and oddly enough, safe. You wouldn’t think working with poisonous snakes as safe, and it isn’t if you’re a bunny lover. But with reptiles you know the ground rules and they are not going to change. They are what they are and you know what to expect. You appreciate them for all of their scary, slithering, poisonous “faults” and you never have to worry about them pretending to be your friend one minute then striking at you the next. That is a trait of the primates, which, incidentally, may be why most reptile keepers can’t stand the primate department. I’ve yet to meet a reptile keeper who likes primates.
Oh the primate keepers. I know this group intimately, having focused my career on non-human primates. The most difficulty primate keepers have is with the human primates, not so much their non-human charges. Socially aware, conniving and calculating, primate keepers are among the least trust worthy people in a professional setting. The book by famous and world renowned primatologist, Frans DeWall called, Chimpanzee Politics, sums up what it’s like to be a primate keeper. The book is about the politics within a chimpanzee group, but the same basic principles apply to being a primate keeper. Initially gregarious and engaging, the primate keeper is constantly watching for the sub text, eyeing out the power players and how to align themselves with those power players or how to over throw those power players. If you are new to the business, and you would have to be to not know this, never trust another primate keeper no matter how nice and helpful they may be. If you do, the last words you may hear yourself speak are, e too Brute. All that being said, being a primate keeper is wonderful if you can stay alert to the political climate within your department. Yes, I speak from experience of being too naïve myself, but that does not detract me from enjoying having been a primate keeper. I just know the non-human primates are not the only ones for whom you must watch out.
Zoo keepers are some of the most amazing people you will ever meet, even if they may not much care for the human species as much as they do their animals. There are plenty of people out there looking after the interests of other people. It takes a special few, with all their eccentricities to take care of animals. Which keeper type fits you the best? Did your natural affinity fit into the groups above? You would be surprised.

Noah’s Ark or How I Became a Zoo Keeper

It seems apropos that the first monkey I worked with was named Noah, biblically the first zoo keeper ever and the first conservationist.  Noah, the monkey, not the biblical figure, was the first non-human primate I ever saw up close and without a barrier.  Imagine that for a moment.  You’ve spent your life enamored with primates and only seeing them through glass or across a wide barrier and then, suddenly, in front of you sits a tiny infant capuchin monkey bouncing around and burrowing through someone’s hair.  From that moment on I was a part of Noah’s care team and assisted in hand rearing several other capuchins while there.  Noah though was my first love.  We all know the biblical story despite religious affiliation.  Noah built the ark on God’s command to prepare for a great flood.  Noah, looking a fool building an ark for an impending flood in the middle of a great drought, did as he was told.  But he wasn’t told to merely save himself and his family.  He took two of every animal.  Let’s not get into the debate whether this is parable or literal or even the logistics of saving two of every species, presumable the land dwelling species.   For our purposes here the fact that a story exists as parable or otherwise to save two of every species makes Noah, as a historical or fictional character-and perhaps even then it’s not black or white, our first true conservationist.  Why save two of every species?  Our first species survival plan was born within the walls of Noah’s ark. 

An AZA zoo(American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) adheres to strict reproductive protocols and actually has specific breeding recommendations for endangered species.  That means that committees within the AZA called SSP’s or species survival programs, determines the genetic value and representation of every animal in a given species in every AZA accredited zoo across the country and determines which individuals can breed with other individuals, if at all.  Most animals at modern zoos are not owned by those institutions but are on loan from other facilities for breeding purposes. That loan may well last the duration of that animal’s life, but it depends on the gene pool and how well represented each individual’s genes in the population are at the time.  If the participating zoo does not recognize and adhere to the breeding recommendations of the SSP, the facility risks having their animals placed elsewhere.  Even animals that are not endangered require responsible breeding protocols to ensure the health and husbandry of the existing population at a given zoo.  Unfortunately, at my first zoo, this was not the case. 

At my first zoo, indiscriminate breeding was the protocol with little concern for who was breeding whom, how often and whether there was space and resources for more babies.  In fact, as these hand reared babies became too old to handle and were placed in groups, new babies were needed for “outreach”.  Outreach animals are animals that are taken off site to schools, birthday parties and festivals to use as “ambassadors” for a conservation message.  In the case of primates, as was mentioned in the last post, hand raised females typically will not care for their offspring, thus making it necessary to hand rear their babies.  So, this became a nice cycle for the zoo to continually have cute baby primates to use as advertisement for the zoo.  Sure, we preached how monkeys do not make good pets, but it seemed a contradiction in terms as we held a precious little monkey in a diaper drinking from a bottle.  I value the experiences I had at this first zoo.  They are certainly experiences I would not have been a part of had I taken a more traditional route to my zoo keeping career.  The route, traditional or otherwise, to becoming a zoo keeper I will address in a separate post, but suffice it to say that mine was old school. 

Noah, the biblical figure, was charged with saving two of each species and as we have agreed upon suspended disbelief in the logistics of accomplishing such a task, divine intervention notwithstanding, we see an early concern in the conservation of species.  Now, the same difficulties in population genetics that confronted the offspring of Adam and Eve seem to be a recurring theme in the two surviving members of each species.  Somehow though we all waded into to the deeper waters of the shallow end of our respective gene pools and became obviously successful organisms as evidenced by the fact we exist at all.  The point to it all is that conservation has been an essential part of our make up as humans and our history.  Cultures and the creation stories of religions across the globe have reverence for animals and their conservation in some respect.  As an aside, when I refer to animals I do not believe humans any less animal, but is easier to refrain from the delineation of non-human versus human animals.  Please know that I do in fact understand that humans are animals and not some superior, being above the kingdom of animalia.  We are animals, albeit very successful ones in a top of the food chain kind of way, for now anyway. 

Humans in their present incarnation are only about 200,000 years old.  The emergence of the first anatomically modern humans, along with the increase in brain size transformed the bipedal primate into a fully fledged member of the top of the food chain.  It was but 10-12,000 years ago that we domesticated ourselves and began settling into semi permanent camps which allowed us to grow crops and keep animals rather than hunt and gather in a nomadic way.  We began to age because the old could stay put and work and those who were sick and injured could recover in camp rather than be left for dead as the rest of the group continued to follow the food.  When we domesticated ourselves, we domesticated animals as well.  We became zoo keepers.  Proper animal husbandry determined whether we lived or died, flourished or floundered.  The same is true today as it was then and as it was with Noah.

Noah, the non-human primate, was my introduction into being a zoo keeper- a steward.  I felt the tiny hands of a non-human primate pat my face and wrap his tail around my arm.  I was hooked in a way that mothers are when they first hold their own infants.  We spoke a common primate language that is translated through eye contact and facial expression that says- I need you.  Biblical Noah did not just save his family upon that ark.  It would have meant less work and ridicule if he only needed to build a boat big enough for his family.  He was commanded to build a giant ark that would offer sanctuary to the animals that inhabited the world.  Noah was chosen as the first zoo keeper and conservationist.  Noah the monkey baptized me in the profession of being a zoo keeper.

The Curious Primate

Let’s begin with saying that monkeys have tails, apes do not.  This means the devastating news for many is that chimpanzees are not monkeys.  Yes, this may take some getting used to, but as a primate keeper I am obliged to insist you get this distinction so I can retain my sanity and not have to go ape shit if you call a chimp a monkey in front of me.  This is just a necessary disclaimer before we go any further together.  This is your only prerequisite for reading this blog.  Good, let’s begin.

I always knew I wanted to take care of animals.  I’ve known it since knowing was known in my little world.  Oddly enough I never had a fascination with Curious George.  What’s curious is that he is an amalgam of primates rather than an actual primate.  A literal translation of what most people view primates to be.  Throw in the size of a capuchin monkey, think the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, the face of a chimpanzee and the tail of a Monkey, again, a capuchin perhaps, and anthropomorphized enough to resemble humans.  Anthropomorphism is a big word zoo keepers and other animal professionals use to describe and avoid the curious tendency for humans to project upon non-human animals human traits, thoughts and emotions. Curious George is an exact replica of what most people think of primates.  You are all disturbingly mislead as to what a primate actually is.  If you are reading this text, you’re a primate.  I’m not making that up to be clever.  In the animal kingdom, we’re primates.  Based on the taxanomic system of categorizing animals in such a way that animals with biological similarities are categorized from broad to specific traits from Kingdom, which includes all animals, to species which are so similar they can actually breed with one another.  Humans share enough distinguishing characteristics to be categorized in the order of primates.  Unless it’s happening in some Chinese test tube, humans and chimps cannot reproduce together so relax, I’m not calling you a chimpanzee.  I’m not even saying we descended from chimpanzees.  Sure, we had a common ancestor six million years ago, but they went their way and we went our way.  I think God must have had pity on the chimpanzee.  But back to Curious George, the curious primate, we are conditioned from a young age to lump all primates together.  It’s understandable, there are a lot of us.  We go to the zoo and there are gorillas-huge, 300 lb silverback males and there are tiny pygmy marmosets that weigh less than a pound.  True story, there are monkeys that small.  We come away from the zoo so overwhelmed by the fascination of so many primates that we can hardly be expected to retain in sharp relief every species we were enamored with.  But go to the zoo more than once a year on a field trip with your kids and do more than the cursory glance and requisite giggle at their antics.  Watch them for half an hour.  Really look at their behavior and you will start to see Curious George unravel.

I have been fortunate enough to work with many species of primates and many other animals as a zookeeper over the years.  My career took me towards specializing in primates, but many other animals along the way have lent to my experiences and the impending stories you will read here.  There’s a little something for everyone, so come on in and have a listen while I zoo and tell.