Working with the Unpredictable

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White-headed buffalo weaver

If you have pets, you know that animals often add an element of unpredictability to life.  Maybe your pups simply can’t grasp the concept of sharing their favorite toy. Maybe your cat doesn’t want to swallow its pill, or your bird just chewed up something important. Keeping a healthy, happy home for an animal can definitely be a challenge.

Bird keeper Michael Grue knows better than most how difficult it can be to maintain the health and happiness of an animal “home.” Each exhibit that is assigned to him is home to an animal family or two or three. A keeper’s day begins with a quick visit to each assigned exhibit to assess the general health of the animals inside. This requires a critical eye as birds will go out of their way to hide signs of weakness. Mr. Grue walked us through this observation process as we visited the Zoo’s pair of Bateleur eagles. 

Mr. Grue instructed us to take a good look at the birds and explained that there are a few key areas to keep an eye on, including vocalization and posture. An ill bird will often be quieter than usual and may sit stiffly or hunched over. As we approached the exhibit, the male eagle was calling to his mate. The pair then proceeded to “show-off” for us by spreading their wings and bowing to each other. These are all signs of good health and also indicate that the pair is progressing toward raising eaglets. If there had been any signs of a problem, Mr. Grue would make a note of it and, if needed, contact the Zoo’s veterinarians.

Feeding comes next on Mr. Grue’s daily schedule. Most of the birds are fed once daily, but the birds that have live crickets or mealworms in their diet are fed more frequently. As Mr. Grue said, “Fruit pretty much stays put in a feeding dish. Crickets just jump out.” This may seem inconvenient for the keepers, but it works out well for birds like the Rueppel’s white-crowned shrike.  Keepers toss the bugs into the air and the shrikes snatch them out of the air. It’s a win-win situation: the food doesn’t wander off and the exercise simulates natural behavior for the birds. 

Things get even more complicated when there are multiple species in an exhibit. Sometimes birds that have gotten along for years will suddenly become mortal enemies for no apparent reason. One bird may need a diet that’s high in iron, while the same iron level may be dangerous to its cage mate. In one case, a western white-crowned robin-chat escaped from its enclosure. Keepers tried to lure the escapee into traps with food, but to everyone’s surprise, a bird inside the enclosure “snuck” food through the wire to his friend outside! The keepers had to temporarily limit the food supply inside the enclosure so that the robin-chat would come into their traps.

Creativity, flexibility, and the ability to be observant are all necessary qualities for a zookeeper. In addition, Mr. Grue has a bachelor’s degree in biology and strongly recommends at least that level of education for anyone interested in zookeeping. Any experience working with animals is also good to have. Being a zookeeper is hard work, but rewarding. At the end of the day, you know that you’ve done your best to keep your charges healthy and happy.

Amy, Careers team