Cruel or kind? The zoos around the globe have been sparking a debate on whether the age of keeping and celebrating animals in captivity is over, and if we’re ready to move forward. And even if we are, then freeing the animals in captivity poses yet another challenge for scientists and entire populations alike. What are the best ways to do that and are we even capable of ensuring their safety out there?
Having said that, around 1 million vertebrate animals live in captivity worldwide, making up over 10,000 zoos across the globe. They accumulate more than 600 million visitors annually, sσ you can imagine what a powerful business it really is. But while people get to see its fun and exotic facade, many not-so-nice things remain behind closed doors.
Recently, some zookeepers have come forward on Reddit to share “the low-down, dirty, inside scoop on zoos.” With 53k upvotes, the thread went viral, amassing some seriously cruel and very unsettling stories about animals behind the fence.
Ok, as is tradition, not a full zookeeper buuut…
When I was a teenager in the 90s, I did volunteer work at the Oakland zoo. There weren’t many of us, sσ we got to choose where we helped out, sσ I chose to work with Bhakti, the 32ish year old Bengal Tiger. Nearly oldest living in captivity when he finally passed. I chose him because he was beautiful, and he always seemed lonely.
He had pacing syndrome hardcore, sσ his entire paddock was green and lush except for the paths along the outer fence line and one or two diagonals he used to get into and out of his night cage. The keepers did their best with him, but had clearly written him off. He was grumpy, unsocial, hid from the public, swiped and hissed at keepers, and ignored all of the enrichment toys and food put out to keep him mobile.
They had a few young Siberians in quarantine already waiting to be put on display, they just had to wait for him to pass and the stubborn old cat lived to spite them.
He always started the morning by pacing his fence line, sσ I started pacing with him. No eye contact, no sounds, just walking back and forth for an hour or two.
After a couple weeks, he started chuffing at me when I arrived, sσ I learned how to mimic it to say hi back.
Another month, and he would actually break his pacing circuit to walk with me, jogging his ancient arthritic ass from wherever he was across the green sections to match me.
Poor guy just needed a friend. I still get a bit misty eyed thinking about him. Just a lonely old cat who had to spend the last years of his life basically alone.
Don’t get me wrong though, the keepers really did do their best, but they couldn’t spend all day with him like I could. They had many duties and creatures to care for and he had a really steep barrier to entry as a friend.
As grumpy as he was, I still think he was good people.
I used to volunteer weekly at a large zoo, and at one point, management started doing monthly dangerous animal escape drills. Someone would run around in a lion onesie and we’d have to react as if one of the large animals had escaped. It was hilarious, but one of the funniest things I was taught was that if an incident did occur, you have to tell the nearby guests to get inside only once. If, after that, they refuse to follow you indoors (the protocol was to hole up in the large activity center buildings), you’re to leave them there, go inside yourself, and lock the doors. It makes sense because people can be very stupid and you don’t want to risk everyone’s lives because of one Karen, but it amused me to no end that the protocol was to just let them get mauled.
Theinfortimes reached out to Sam Threadgill, the director of “Freedom for Animals” charity that began as the Captive Animals’ Protection Society in 1957. Today, it is one of the UK’s longest-running charities working to protect animals. Through a combination of undercover investigations, research, campaigns, activism, political lobbying, and education, their work for animals focuses on issues affecting those individuals held captive in circuses, zoos, and aquariums, as well as those used in the television and film industry, live animal displays and the exotic pet trade.
It’s no secret that zoos are extremely harmful to many of the animals who are unfortunate enough to find themselves destined to a life of captivity. Sam explained that “the highly unnatural environments of zoo enclosures often cause what is known as zoochosis – a mental disorder borne from the sheer boredom, frustration and lack of opportunity to display natural, innate behaviors.”
When I worked on the grounds crew at a zoo, there was a camel who thought it was hysterical to nudge people into the electric fence. When we would trim the moat around his enclosure, he liked to reach his neck out and hook you just hard enough to stumble and get yourself shocked.
We closed the baboon exhibit because a baboon had a still birth and the troupe was “grieving”.
In reality they were throwing parts of the infant corpse around and there was nothing we could do about it
Sam also suggested taking a look at any big cat enclosure at a zoo. “You’re almost guaranteed to find a trodden path around the edge of the enclosure. These are caused by the big cats pacing up and down, or circling their enclosure continuously.”
Turns out that these “obsessive behaviors are directly caused by the frustration of being confined to a cage tens of thousands of times smaller than their natural home ranges in the wild.”
The most dangerous and feared animal in case of an escape is not, as you may think, lions, tigers, or other large carnivores. It’s the chimps. Those things will rip your arm off and beat you to death with the bloody end as soon as they look at you.
There was one particularly traumatic event with the lions on a very warm and very packed spring day. The zoo was inside a large park, sσ various wild animals wandered through the zoo all day. One unfortunate day, a large deer fell into the lion enclosure. The adolescent male stalked it and ran it down within about 30 seconds and tore the deer to shreds. In front of dozens of horrified adults and screaming kids. I felt kind of bad that sσ many people saw, but like, circle of life.
The director of “Freedom for Animals” believes that no animal deserves to be sentenced to a lifetime of captivity. “As humans, many of us are coming out of coronavirus lockdowns, but for zoo animals, the lockdown is permanent,” he added.
When asked about the most important step towards ending captivity, Sam said that it’s “an immediate end to breeding animals in zoos. The vast majority of breeding programs only serve to produce more animals who will spend their entire lives in zoos. Once breeding in zoos ends, the zoo population will slowly decrease, allowing for a phase out of this cruel and outdated industry.”
Aquarist of 10 years sσ I’m one of the people who reeks of fish all the time. Getting the smell of squid you’ve prepped off your hands is only possible with bleach.
Artificial insemination of large sharks (for the purposes of developing procedures for vulnerable species) is as “interesting” as you might think. One day our vet used a broken popsicle stick as a speculum on a blacktip reef shark and every female aquarist at the procedure collectively shuddered. Squishing sperm out by squeezing the claspers is…. oof.
When I started as an intern my supervisor said we are glorified janitors. People don’t realize how technical being an aquarist is because we care for the system that keeps everything running and all of the filtration. I know how to plumb, drive a forklift, and am great with all sorts of random tools. Between cleaning the filtration that collects poop and scrubbing algae out of my exhibits, I really am a fancy janitor.
The things people seem to find most interesting are 1. Fish (including large sharks) have complex behaviors and can be trained. The goldfish memory thing is a myth. 2. We can anesthetize fish (including large sharks) and keep them alive out of water. We pump water with anesthesia in it into the mouth, and it then runs out over their gills allowing them to take up oxygen and the anesthesia. You can do this while they’re up on a procedure table that looks like a human surgery table, sσ you can do whatever surgery or procedure is necessary. We give veterinary care to even the tiniest of fishes and invertebrates… their welfare is excellent.
The nastiest (and saddest) thing I’ve seen is necropsies on wild rehab sea turtles when they either died in the wild or we weren’t able to save them. Going through the intestinal tract to look for impactions (usually plastic like balloons) is especially gross and there’s a smell that never leaves your nose. Do everything you can to reduce your use of plastic and vote for things that will help our planet.
The tough part of the job is the interpersonal aspect. Managers used to be aquarists, and aquarists are animal people- not people people. People skills don’t come naturally and neither does managing. Coworkers can also be judgemental and toxic. Pay also sucks, and the job is completely exhausting mentally and physically. It isn’t unusual for me to walk 5 miles a day on top of diving for hours and climbing 50 flights of stairs. Then there’s the mental aspect of always worrying about your animals or if you made a mistake that could hurt your animals. It’s not a job you turn off at the end of the day.
That being said, the job is amazing. I’m a coral specialist, and caring for coral is like being an awesome underwater gardener. Getting paid to go open ocean diving, and to go to conferences in cool cities to share knowledge with others is super amazing.
My wife was a zookeeper and I used to volunteer there a lot.
Most of zookeeping is just picking up poop and making/delivering food.
The animal that was was least scary was a cheetah. They were pretty cool ignoring everything as long as they had food. The most scary to me were the giraffes. Back then you went into the enclosure with them and they’d sometimes swing their heads around and try to hit you just to be pricks. You had to be careful.
The job would actually be fantastic if they didn’t let people into the zoo
“Reintroductions of captive animals back into the wild is extremely difficult to do,” Sam said and added that “this fact serves as an important reason why zoos shouldn’t exist.” Turns out, “Many zoos argue that they hold members of species captive sσ that they can be ‘saved from extinction’ but as reintroductions back into the wild for the vast majority of species are extremely few and far between, this argument holds no weight. Indeed, only 83% of species in English zoos don’t have threatened wild populations,” he explained.
What do you want to really know?
Zookeepers are overworked, underpaid, and are constantly in a battle to prove their worth to seemingly everyone. We spend day and night (and sometimes overnight) caring for our animals often regardless of our personal lives because those animals deserve the best life possible and at the end of the day the most abused thing at the zoo is the Zookeepers themselves.
I had a guest tell me one day that they thought the gorilla would be happier dead in the wild than in his habitat while also knowing absolutely nothing about what is impacting gorillas in the wild. I’ve had parents point at me cleaning a habitat and tell their children “stay in school or you’ll end up like her”. In fact I’d say a decent percentage of guests in my 10+ years were extremely surprised to hear most Zookeepers have degrees/higher education.
Zoos need our support at the end of the day as they provide education and experience that can build empathy. We have to teach people to care and it’s hard to when sometimes things aren’t affecting the immediate world around us but is instead affecting someone else’s across the globe. Why is it important to recycle your old cell phones? It will reduce the need to mine for coltan, a mineral used in cell phones that can be recaptured in the recycling process. Less coltan mining = less loss of habitat for gorillas among other animals. Do you check the labels of items you buy for sustainable Palm oil? If not, you could be helping add to the destruction of orangutan habitat. Our actions matter, our choices matter, and we have to teach that.
Animals sometimes kill other animals and there really isn’t much that can be done about it. I remember when a groundhog made it into a chimpanzee exhibit and the baby of the group found it. She caught it and played with it for a long time. Eventually, to keep it from running away, the baby beat it to death right beside the viewing windows. She then held it like a stuffed teddy bear for another half an hour, dragging it around with her when she went to forage. Mind you, this happened right in front of a group of school children. I was in the viewing area and a teacher/chaperone insisted that I “do something”. Like, what? Ma’am, that’s a chimpanzee; nobody’s doing anything.
The kids actually learned something on that trip to the zoo, though.
Most importantly, the time when it was acceptable for animals to be held in captivity purely for public entertainment has long since gone. Sam called the Zoos and aquariums “relics of a different and outdated era that need to be phased out.”
This isn’t a zoo I worked at but did visit often. Operators couldn’t figure out why the sharks in the mixed species tank kept turning up dead sσ they set up a couple cameras and it turned out there was a [freaking] psycho octopus just killing for fun. Hiding between rocks, waiting, and then just strangling them to death.
Our lions will urinate on guests if they get too close, which is always funny to see. Not sσ funny to smell.
If you’re a guest feeding/touching animals outside of the petting zoo or an encounter, you might just kill them.
I could rant about this forever. The number of zoo animals that die from incorrect food in their systems is staggering. The average person has no idea which animals can be killed from an apple core, a piece of bread, or a grape. Even just picking leaves and grass from outside of the enclosure. A guest has no idea what an animal’s digestive system cannot tolerate and can place a death sentence on an animal just because they wanted a special interaction.
Let’s talk about diseases! Our good pal rabies is a great one! Rabies vaccines are NOT produced specifically for every exotic animal species, sσ a vet will do the best they can by giving high risk animals the closest version of an appropriate rabies shot. The closest version does NOT guarantee no rabies! You tried to touch a monkey that is undoubtedly covered in saliva from grooming? Better go get your rabies shots! Not to mention the abundance of parasites and human foreign diseases that exotics can carry or we can pass on to them.
TLDR: If you feed or touch a zoo animal that you weren’t supposed to, you might kill it and should probably go to the doctor.
I spoke to a zoo keeper at the national zoon in DC. We where watching another keeper inside the cheetah enclosure and I asked him about the danger involved. He said a cheetah is harmless to an adult human because it only hunts smaller creatures. I asked which creature was the worst to go in with, expecting hippo, elephant or croc as an answer. Without hesitating he said “zebras” then leaned close and whispered “They are the biggest [jerks]. They will bite and kick for no reason.” I still think it’s hilarious that off all the teeth and claws out there, it’s stripped donkey horses that are the worst.
Some people like to bring fruit and stuff to throw into the animals cages, even though they’re not suppose to. If you’re around and someone throws a pineapple into the gorilla or chimpanzee dens, gtfo. They will throw that thing full blast at someone. I saw a man get hit full force right in the side of the head and he was lights out. Pineapple exploded on impact. Paramedics came and everything.
Our camels will spit if you piss them off, and it’s not saliva like most people think. You really, really, really, really don’t want to upset our camels if you have any plans the rest of the week, please and thank you!
I work three jobs to support my zookeeping habit, I’ve been in the game for about three and a half years now and it’s a constant fight to keep my head above water. But I love it sσ much I don’t think I can give it up.
Most of my day is spent cleaning up animal [poop]. It’s not glamorous. I have sustained a concussion and herniated discs in my spine from my work. I’m constantly covered in bruises and scrapes. I have sσ little vacation time that I see my family about once a year. I have to buy a lot of my work supplies and gear on my own dime. My benefits are sσ trash that the medication I need to survive is $220 a month with their insurance.
But I really, truly, honestly believe that I am doing good and worthwhile work, and I wouldn’t trade anything for that moment during a training session where you see it dawn on an animal what you’re asking for. My zoo is very conservation minded and avoids charismatic megafauna sσ that we can support smaller, lesser known mammals that don’t get the same hype. I love it and I’m not giving it up.
I worked at a zoo in a northern country (can’t say which as it’ll give it away) which had a white tiger, and was quite famous for it. One day the zoo announced the tiger had died of ‘natural causes’. Whilst working there a few years after he died, I was told by a keeper that there was actually a problem with the electric fencing in his enclosure that the zoo managers refused to pay to get fixed, thinking it would be fine.
He was electrocuted to death a few weeks after they found the problem.
They covered the whole thing up by saying they weren’t sure how he died, but that he was old. It’s still a zoo secret to this day.
Those free-roaming peacocks are really stupid and sometimes go in the lions exhibit and get torn up.
The zebras are ruthless and will tear apart any unfortunate kangaroo that dares break into an enclosure. They love the thrill of the chase…and the subsequent kill when they get bored.
When you’re cleaning underneath the perches, parrots will wait for you to look up before [pooping]. They have good aim. That’s how you get [poop] in the mouth. Don’t look up.
Lions know fully well that they can’t get through the glass. They do that just to get attention.
The amount of injuries you can just casually pick up from animals is crazy. I’ve been kicked in the chest by a kangaroo, almost sexually assaulted by an emu, attacked by a wombat and a bat, bitten by a monitor lizard and a carpet python, had a rhino charge at me, and been scratched by a macaque. My old boss has this badass scar from a snow leopard attack, and this guy I work with now has his entire left forearm mangled from an orangutan attack.
Dead zoo animals are sometimes fed to carnivores.
One of our most popular exhibits was this incubator with baby chicks. We were told to tell visitors that the older baby chicks would be sent to schools as classroom pets or to the petting zoo. In reality, we did send the chicks to the zoo…as live animal feed for the snakes and other carnivores.
I worked with large tortoises. We had these five-gallon buckets for cleaning the poop out of enclosures, and other buckets for feeding them fresh grass we cut. The first day on the job, I took both buckets into the pen. … I heard this awful, loud grunting and something breaking. One of the 300-pound males tried to bang the bucket in front of visitors and flattened it. He would even follow me around just in case I might leave more innocent buckets unattended.
The dolphin trainers are stuck up. They are like the jocks in high school. They usually try to stay in shape because wetsuits aren’t flattering. They perform daily and people love them, sσ they have an ego.
Fun fact bout the local zoo i learnt when i worked maintenance, there is a wolf enclosure. There is info bout the wolves, its maintained. “They are just shy/in their shelter atm” . There are no wolves, never was.
Not a zookeeper, but worked at one for a long time. We had a tram tour that drove over a bridge where there were a bunch of crocodiles below. If someone were to fall out of the tram at this point, the protocol was to speed out of the area as fast as possible sσ the remaining visitors on the tram would not see the unfortunate person get teared to shreds by the crocs
Went on a behind the scenes tour of the zoo.
Saw quite a few bunnies come out during the tour (the neighboring park had a problem with people abandoning pet rabbits). It was pretty clear the dumb bunnies were getting into predator enclosures. Tour guide confirmed they were regularly getting eaten.
Tour guide also indicated other urban wildlife: raccoons, possums, squirrels, birds were regularly eaten by predators. Said that when they drained the lion enclosure moat for maintenance it was filled with the bones of small mammals.
The most amusing stories were about the orangutans who are wicked smart. Zookeeper trained them to give over items in exchange for food in case they needed to get something from them in the enclosure. But orangutans are smart, and realized if they break things up and hand it back in lots of little pieces they get more food. They disassembled a radio that accidentally got left in the enclosure and when there was an opossum in the enclosure the results were a bit more gruesome.
Not a zookeeper, but someone who has designed equipment and caging for zoos. I was told many horror stories how some animals would get hurt or even killed because of trying to find ways out of their caging. They can range from really stupid to incredibly brilliant.
Had to replace a giraffe indoor pen. The previous one had vertical bars, think old jail cell bars. A bull giraffe stuck his head out then turned and went back in to the side to see what’s behind him. He freaked out and essentially ʜuɴg himself. Sσ we couldn’t use vertical bars that they could stick their head through.
Witnessed a silverback gorilla having a bad day. He seemed tired of the crowd and put a box on his head to make the world go away. People kept watching, he kept getting annoyed and finally threw the box off, charged us and pounded on the glass. I’m well aware that glass can take several shots from a .50 cal. rifle. But the explosive bang from the gorilla hitting the glass was insane, and terrified everyone.
Ostriches run on instinct primarily. I designed a cage for the vet. to treat them. It was entirely enclosed and had multiple small doors all around the cage. The reason is the vet told me about an instance where an ostrich got its foot cut and needed stitches. They got the bird in the cage and one vet fed bird and the other stitched up the cut. No anesthesia, just a diversion. The bird just kept eating and didn’t care about getting the stitches.
In a different zoo they needed to replace the caging of a very large bird of prey. I don’t remember the species, but I do remember seeing what it’s claws did to the aluminum tubing cage they kept it in. The aluminum was shredded, and whoever was on the other side was either going to have a bad day or get what they deserved for pissing off this bird. I of course went with stainless steel heavy gauge rod for the cage. The shop hated all the welding but in the end the cage was way nicer and stronger than the old one.
I didn’t get to travel much with the installation crew but I was in the shop supervising the building of caging. There were many times I had to have things rewelded or redone because of safety and Q.C. issues. Remember when you visit a zoo, that often times your life is depending on someone that wasn’t qualified, underpaid, and overworked. Whenever I visit a zoo, I look at the structure design and how it was put together. Too many times I see welds that are of poor quality and barely hold the structure in place let alone stop something big and heavy that’s pissed off..
If any animal escapes before the zoo opens to the public, the zoo is supposed to shut down completely for the day. Often, though, smaller zoos can’t afford to lose a day open to the public, sσ if some specific types of animals escape (such as reptiles or small animals), they will just stay open while having keepers look for the animal. … I remember hearing from coworkers that they listened to our boss and opened even though a small but somewhat venomous snake was on the loose.
Next time you go to the zoo, ask someone which animals are ‘kill on sight’ in an escape. The answers will surprise you. Lions and tigers are typically on the ‘tranq and capture’ list, but a jaguar the size of a golden retriever is ‘KoS.’ The zoo I was with, the two jags were the only animals on site that were on the shoot-to-kill list. Even the silverback was on the tranq-first list.
The poor penguin keepers can never quite get rid of the miasma of dead fish that envelopes them. As for me, the stinkiest job I ever had to do was cleaning out the duck ponds. Managed to empty a whole train carriage that evening, even though I had changed and my work clothes were double-bagged.
Because their external genitalia look similar, many spotted hyena populations in captivity are facing extinction due to groups being made of the same ᵴeᶍ.