Zoo animals and kids: they’re basically the same thing

Guest post by Ellen Vossekuil
Yep, I get it. Photo by Stephanie Kaloi.

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!

Comments on Zoo animals and kids: they’re basically the same thing

  1. I love this, thanks for writing this. And thanks for taking such good care of zoo animals!

  2. Perfect timing on this article! We’re expecting and just got a new puppy about a week before we found out I was pregnant. It’s been a lot to deal with all at once and my husband keeps saying “he’s just giving you practice”, now that makes a little more sense.

  3. Love this! I often compare rearing children to dogs… hah. And the training and disciplining.. I mean. The same!!

  4. This is a greatly insightful post. I laughed and nodded all the way through.
    I have been, in fact, peed on by a tiger at the Omaha Zoo w/ my partner… we went home. NAO.

    We have 7 animals at home that produce many “mommy-training” opportunties for me. Like yesterday: the ferret had water-diarrhea that took all of my after-work naptime before cooking a dinner for our friends and their 2 year old.
    …good times.

  5. I was a full time pet sitter pre-children and felt that it prepared me too at least a little bit for becoming a mom. But here’s the one big difference. When you’re in the business of caregiving, you get to leave work and go home and be off-duty. Get a shower, have some wine, have some quiet time. Ahhh. You probably even get whole weekends off. When you’re a parent, you’re on duty all the time. Sure you can hand the baby off to your partner or your mom or someone every now and then but you’re always responsible in some way for this human creature you created pretty much for the rest of your life. And, if you keep working as a zookeeper like I did as a petsitter, you’ll be getting peed on at work and at home. Good times.

    • That’s true, but that’s true of taking care of other people’s children as well. I’m a teacher, and I absolutely believe the the skills I am working on to teach and nurture my students will help me with parenting, but I’m very aware that when my own comes along (six months now) I don’t get to clock out and hand them back to their parents.

  6. Love this post! I’m a firm believer of rewarding wanted behavior and ignoring unwanted behavior.

  7. Awesome. It’s true that babies are sometimes terrifying, but I really can’t imagine they’re more terrifying than tigers…

  8. This post just made me so happy. Who knew how much angry tigers and babies have in common? 😉

  9. YES! I love this post!

    While I know this is a little strange as I (A) am not a parent and (B) don’t even own a dog yet, I am totally going to use the power of positive reinforcement. I’m convinced that’s how my mother raised us as while I’m researching how to train my future dog, I keep seeing things like “we’re trying to make it so they won’t even think about doing something bad, because they know how to do something good” We hardly ever had discipline problems simply because we knew what we should do and we did it!

  10. Love this! We have friends who are really REALLY into animals and pets (like 13 pets kinda really) who do not have kids yet and whenever we get together for dinner the conversation inevitably ends up at kids/dogs and how similar it is to have them.

  11. Thanks for this post. I laughed and nodded all the way through it too 🙂 I have a nearly two year old girl and she is very much a tiny, angry tiger at times although we call her ‘Little Dragon’. Wish I could get her to lie down rather than roaring at me!

  12. Wonderful post! My husband’s high school had all the students spend two weeks doing a work internship. Most of them went in with their parents, but he managed to spend the two weeks at a wildlife center in his hometown. He spent a lot of time shoveling shit, but thoroughly enjoyed it and has lots of stories to tell. I’m confident he’ll be an amazing parent when the time comes. I think it’s just him, but maybe zookeeping had something to do with it, too!

  13. I’ve raised 2 sets of foster kittens now, from birth to adoption, and though obviously its nothing like taking care of zoo animals, i think its a great prep for being a mom! It will almost be a relief that when my baby has diarrhea all over it, ‘at least’ its not in the farthest corner of our room, behind the bed! yay!

  14. Awesome post! I can only relate to the comments about dogs, though. Maybe having a dog prepares you for ages human 0-4? You have to use nonverbal communication, understand what they need, etc. A dog won’t prepare you for teenagers, though, haha.

    I have an anxious rescue dog who needs a lot of verbal reassurance, specifically “framing.” (There’s probably a real behavior term for that, so if someone could help me out here, I’d appreciate it!) You use a happy voice to talk about the situation so it doesn’t seem so scary. So I know I’ll have the “baby babble” down PAT because I already do it with my dog.
    “Look! A person up ahead. Oh, they doing something weird, right? Silly person.”
    “OH, look at the doggie coming this way. Yay, a dog friend! Let’s say hi”
    “Was that a strange noise? What do you think about that? That was weird, right?”

    It’s like when a child falls down but doesn’t actually hurt themselves. If you rush up to them and freak out, they cry. But if you say “Oopsy daisy. Just a little tumble.” most of the time they recover quickly and don’t cry.

    • Yes! It’s all about your energy with dogs. They look to their pack leader to assess the situation… “Hey well if THEY aren’t freaked out by this weird human then I guess I shoudn’t freak out either” , but if you immediately get tense when you see a potential trigger, thinking they will bark/growl/be aggressive/insert bad behavior here then they take that as a sign that they should be tense too. My two hyper boxer mixes have forced me to research a lot about dog psychology!!

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