My partner and I don’t have kids yet, but we’re trying. I work as a zookeeper, and as more of my friends squeeze out little bundles of joy, I’m struck by how similar zookeepers and parents really are. For one, we’re both obsessed with poop. Moreover, we take our jobs as caregivers very, very seriously. When you have another life depending on you, it’s time to step up your game. Here are five ways that being a zookeeper will make me a better parent.
I am totally not afraid of bodily functions
Ever been peed on by a tiger? In sheer volume and stink quality, nothing is more gross. So I’m confident that, when my own tiny human chooses to shower me with urine, I probably won’t bat a pee-soaked eyelash. Zookeepers deal with feces on a daily basis, and most have been spat on, puked on, even rubbed with scent glands. Sure, baby poop is stinky, and I’m sure there will be times when I’m nearly knocked unconscious by what I find in my child’s diaper, but it’s probably nothing worse than something I’ve smelled at work.
Babies can’t talk… and neither can animals
Babies can’t talk. They can squirm, and cry, and smile, but they can’t talk. Neither can animals. Zookeepers are masters of body language, noticing tiny changes in animals’ moods based on glances or vocalization. Changes in routine are analyzed to see what might have caused a disturbance. There will be times when my own child will baffle me with the incessant need to express herself by screaming at the top of her lungs, but hopefully I’ll be tuned in to all the clues to figure out what’s wrong. Or at least comfort myself that I’ve made a most exhaustive search and she’s simply angry about life.
Apes and kids learn in similar ways
Orangutans have the cognition of a 3-4 year old child. So, I’m going to make a leap here and assume that all babies are apes. Or, at least, they learn in similar ways. Training for zoo animals is based on positive reinforcement: Rewarding behavior we want with something good. It teaches us to focus on what we want our animals to do, and use well-timed rewards to teach them to do it. I’ve already put these techniques into practice while teaching swimming lessons, and I plan to use them with my own children some day.
They eventually learn to calm down
The other half of using rewards to get behavior you want is ignoring behavior you don’t want. Parents do this all the time, by ignoring the whining child or putting a feisty toddler in time-out. Zookeepers ignore bad behavior all the time, too — from door-pounding to spit balls and well-timed water jets. Our female tiger is not a fan of humans, and tried for years to roar us out of her sight. We ignored the roaring, but asked her to lay down. If she did, we left. Now when her Highness gets frustrated with our presence, she lays down. She is still able to express herself, but in a much less noisy way. After keeping my poker-face in front of a very angry momma tiger, I hope a little temper tantrum isn’t going to phase me. Even at the grocery store. Listen to my little angel roar!
I know the most interesting entertainment is usually the easiest
I’ve got a laundry basket, some golf balls, and some newspaper. Can I entertain my child with that? You better believe it! Zookeepers spend time every day coming up with creative ways to keep animals busy. We can take anything (Bedsheet? Milk crate? Creepy Nixon mask?) and figure out a way to distract our animals. My kids aren’t going to need fancy toys. As long as we have an ample supply of cardboard boxes and plastic bottles in the house, the fun will never end!