Horns & Antlers
Zookeepers get to answer a lot of questions, and we love it! When you see a zookeeper at the zoo and you have a burning question in your mind, don’t be shy! We know that a big part of our job is teaching the public about animals and the environment. One of my favorite questions is ‘what is the difference between horns and antlers’. Antlers grow and shed annually. They are made entirely of bone which starts off as a spongy bone covered in nourishing velvet until they are fully grown and harden, and then the velvet sloughs away. The antlers are dropped after the mating season when they are no longer needed. Horns are permanent and are made of a bony core covered by a tough keratin sheath (the same material your fingernails are made of). Of course, like everything in nature, there are exceptions! If you’re interested, look up Pronghorn horns and Giraffe ossicones. Animal adaptations are always fascinating.
Conservation is a major focus at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, as it is for most modern zoos. We work hard to improve upon our conservation initiatives every year. We are lucky enough to have a river run through our zoo, the Salmon River, and over the last few years we have begun the process of restoring the riparian zone (which is the land adjacent to a water source). We work with local environmental groups and the community at large to achieve this goal. We are also involved in three endangered species recovery programs: Oregon Spotted Frog, Western Painted Turtle, and Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly. Through our captive breeding and release programs we hope to restore these species back to historic numbers. Zoos are perfectly equipped to be cornerstones of conservation and it’s so nice to see over the years more and more of the world’s zoos move towards this as their primary focus.
Mornings at the zoo
Mornings are most zookeepers’ favourite time of day. After I change into my uniform, I go and gather all of the food I need for my animals’ breakfasts. This could be produce, hay, pellets, meat, or insects. Then I drive around to all of the barns on my route and go through my morning routine in each area. I always start by greeting each animal by name, telling them how much I love them, and asking them if they had a good night (I still haven’t gotten an answer to that one!). Then it’s breakfast time and this is usually the easiest time for a keeper to do a thorough health check while the animal is occupied and close to them. Depending on the animal, sometimes I do a full clean of the barn and enclosure in the morning, but there’s not enough time to do this with every animal, so some cleaning I have to leave until the afternoon. When my morning routine is finished I go have my own breakfast and greet my co-workers. I greet them all by name, but I don’t give them a thorough health check or tell them how much I love them. that’s just for animals.
As a zookeeper you are sometimes asked to write about your animals. What I love best about this is researching all of the fascinating and unique information about each species. Each time I research I find out a new interesting little fact I didn’t know about. Here in the zoo world we like to call these ‘fun facts’. For example, did you know at 5cm in diameter ostriches have the largest eyes of any land animal, or that a moose can dive up to 6m for food? Did you know badgers and coyotes have been seen cooperatively hunting for food, or that green iguanas can colonize other islands by floating over on fallen vegetation? We like to put fun facts wherever we can, on signs and in documents. Surprise is part of what makes learning fun and we’re all about making learning fun here at the zoo!
Valentine’s day is fast approaching, so let’s talk about love! As a scientist I try not to anthropomorphize (which is the attribution of human characteristics to an animal), however, you don’t work with animals for very long (or be a pet owner!) without realizing pretty quickly that animals feel love just as much as we do. As a zookeeper I can show my love in many ways from making sure they are warm and safe, that they are mentally and physically stimulated through a variety of enrichments, and just by spending as much time with them as I can. I try to love them all equally, from a tall, handsome giraffe to a tiny, slimy frog. My animals mean the world to me and the love I receive in return is hands down the best part of my job.