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Lessons From the Zoo: How my Job as a Zookeeper Made Me a Better Nurse

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by classicalcat classicalcat (New Member) New Member

3,765 Visitors; 12 Posts


I had a flash-back the other day at work. I was cleaning the circumcision board that was covered in poop. Ah, cleaning poop--I was remembering my days as a zookeeper. And, as you can imagine, the job involved lots of poop cleaning.

This was another life--I have not been a zookeeper for over twenty years now. As I was applying for my first nursing position, I hit "delete," and like that, this career disappeared from my resume. How can being a zookeeper be applicable to nursing?. But as I reflected while cleaning the circ board, I realized that having been a zookeeper gave me many experiences that were very applicable to nursing.

Unlike some of my colleagues who dreamed of being a nurse from an early age, I was the girl who sat spell-bound in class when I saw that first video about Jane Goodall. As I watched this young woman studying chimpanzees in Africa, my path was set--I was going to work with chimps.

Quick Reflexes, Determination, and Patience--Or, Catching Monkeys and Toddlers

Presently, I work as a pediatric nurse as well as in the nursery and postpartum. Anyone who has worked with peds will understand this: if they aren't that sick and need vital signs and an assessment, and fall somewhere between the ages of 13 months and 4 years, you will be chasing them around the room. Some parents are much better at keeping their kids under control than others. You have to be flexible and willing to move with the child at times. You have to have quick reflexes and lots of patience. These skills I honed 20 years ago in the monkey house.

The zoo veterinarian had to examine individual monkeys each year to do labs and to check out the overall health of the animal. Unlike now, when keepers train many animals to present their arms for blood draws or medicines, we had to shoot the animal with a tranquilizer gun (the larger ones) or catch them (the smaller ones). The idea of chasing around a two-year-old for assessment is nothing compared to trying to catch a monkey with a net--a monkey who can climb, leap, and poop all at the same time. Yes, I developed some pretty fast reflexes and learned how to safely hold down a squirming monkey while not getting bit.

We learned all kinds of tricks with the monkeys in order to give meds--distraction and bribery being some of the more effective ones. Both of these tools work well with peds. Although, I don't think the tranquilizer dart would go over too well, tempting as it may be!

You Called Me for This?! Assessments and When to Call the Doc

When folks visit a zoo, they don't see the keepers doing the majority of their work, because they do a lot of it before visiting hours or behind the scenes. (Early hours, weekend shifts, and holidays. Yep, all applicable to nursing!) My first job when I arrived at the monkey house was to perform basic assessments. OK, not the hands-on nursing type, but that first visual observation. Many times as a nurse, I have learned so much before I lay hands or stethoscope on my patient. As a keeper, I had to assess every monkey in the morning--was there food left over in the cage? Did anyone look lethargic? Did I see any evidence of fighting--wounds, blood on the wall, etc.? In order to do this well, you had to know each individual to interpret what was "normal" for them. If we saw something, we had to carefully document it in a log, and know if it was time to call the vet.

I began my zookeeping career with elephants and hoofstock--you had to put in your time before you got to work with the primates.

Like doctors everywhere, the zoo veterinarian was very busy. He didn't like being bothered unless it was important. Needless to say, there was a certain anxiety involved if you wanted him to come see an animal. One day, when I was working with the elephants, I noticed something red in the poop that I was cleaning. Well, this can't be a good sign, I thought. The elephant seemed fine, but the color of the poop was concerning to me, so I called the vet, and gathered a sample of the poop. As he was assessing the elephant, the main keeper showed up for his shift. I told him what I noticed and that I had called the vet. "Oh crap!" he said, "I think I know what this is about." He then sheepishly told the vet that he discovered yesterday that the elephant really liked red snow cones. "It was a hot day, and I thought to cool her off while she was giving elephant rides." Needless to say, the vet was pretty angry about being called for red-snow cone-tinged poop. I learned that I should probably get a bigger picture and more data before jumping the gun.

Fast forward to another day, when, as a new pediatric nurse, I was extremely alarmed to find that one of my patient's SATs had dropped to the mid-70s. He was sleeping--and the monitor was dinging loudly. The waveform looked good. I woke him up and told him to take a deep breath--the SATs continued to stay low. I listened to his lungs--not bad, I thought. I called in another nurse to assist me. She was the one to discover that his SAT probe had fallen off his toe. What the heck, I thought. How was it still reading with a waveform and it wasn't even on his toe?! Thank goodness I didn't call a rapid response...ugh. Ah yes, remember to make sure you have the bigger picture before panicking!

The Cranky, Ornery Ones--Or "I Had Her Yesterday, Today it is Your Turn"

There was one chimp I took care of named "Giselle." She was an ornery, cranky old thing. No one liked her--not the other chimps, and not the caregivers. She grabbed, scratched, and bit whenever she could. We took turns with her--it wouldn't be fair for one caregiver to have to deal with her everyday. It was my turn on this day and I found Giselle lying on her bench, with her eyes half closed. She barely lifted her head when I approached--it was obvious that she was sick. It turned out that she had Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis. She became very lethargic and stopped eating. As caregivers, we questioned how much intervention there should be, given her old age. She refused all medication. One morning, I came in to see another caregiver sitting in front of Giselle's cage--it was her day off. "I figured out that she will eat grapes!" she said excitedly. "But you have to peel the skin off each one." Wow, I thought. Here was my friend, on her day off, peeling each grape meticulously and passing them one by one through the bars. After all of the fancy treats that we had tried, peeled grapes was all it took. Giselle rallied and actually got better from her illness. She went on to live several more years. I wish I could say that she treated us better, after we peeled all of those grapes, but she didn't. She was still as cranky as ever.

I learned that we have to take care of those who are unpleasant to us. We can ask for politeness and respect, but there is no guarantee that the patient will give that to us. We need to take care of them anyway. And I learned that it is sometimes the little things that make a difference.

We had a patient come to the floor whom we were all familiar with. She had schizoaffective disorder, bi-polar, anxiety, and suicidal ideation--and she was pregnant. She was disrupting the entire floor with her screaming. Nothing seemed to calm her, nothing worked. She was not my patient, and the nurse taking care of her was busy trying to get ahold of the doc for orders. So I gave it a shot. Several minutes later, the patient was quiet. Everyone breathed a small sigh of relief at the silence. "What did you do to make her quiet?" my friend asked. "Grape popsicle," I said. "That's it?" she asked. "Yep."

I wish I could say it fixed her issues--of course it didn't, but for about an hour, we had gained a reprieve and some time to deal with the situation. I love it when the small things help.

You Don't Do Dentures?!

When I was a new CNA in a long-term care facility, I worked with another CNA who had been there for years. I was in the middle of nursing school and willing and eager. As we were dividing up our work loads for the day, she said to me, "By the way, I don't do dentures, so if you could do that for me, that would be great." "Why don't you do dentures" I asked, puzzled. "I can't stand them--I don't like spit. I can clean up poop, vomit, or blood, but don't ask me to clean dentures."

I guess everyone has their substance that makes their toes curl. As nurses, we know that bodily fluids are a part of the job description. I imagine that many nursing students have wondered how they will handle some of these demands. I realized that I was way ahead in this regard. Oh, I can handle gross.

Probably the grossest substance that I experienced first hand as a zookeeper was what came out of Gracie's abscess. The lesson I learned that day was when the vet tells you that you will be the one holding a camel's head still while the vet lances a tooth abscess, you should probably be wearing goggles. I had a mask on, but we are talking a veritable explosion of pus. I probably don't have to go into more detail about the monkey house, either. Bored primates like to throw stuff--and they have deadly aim, too. We had showers at work and used them often.

Getting Your Work Done with an Audience and Learning to Love Teachable Moments

You've been there, I am sure. It is the nursing version of Murphy's Law. The more people who are watching you, the less chance there is of getting the IV on the first try. Or when counting a baby's heart rate with a stethoscope in your ears, a family member is giving you a play-by-play of the birth, which you can't hear at all. We do our jobs with people observing everything that we do. And because they are watching, we can turn many moments into teaching opportunities.

Zookeeping was like that. We did a lot of our work before the public got there, but for the rest of the day, you are in the spot-light. Ask any zookeeper and they will agree that people will stand and watch a human being cleaning a cage for more time than they watch the animals. At first, this annoyed me--move on, folks, nothing to observe here, but me hosing down a cage for the umpteenth time.

But as I matured and became more comfortable with the public, I began to engage with them. They had loads of questions--what was it like to take care of the monkeys? Why do they do this? Or that? What is their favorite food? My job took on a different dimension for me. I realized that I was playing a small part in the visitors' experience that day and hopefully, they would go home with a greater appreciation of the animals they saw.

It is like that with nursing. It is possible to go through your day with pleasant interactions with your patients, and provide good care. But to really engage them and see if there is a knowledge gap about their health or situation--this is a dimension of nursing that I have grown to love.

Never Lose Sight of the Quiet, Beautiful Moments

I only got to witness one birth as a zookeeper. Animals are subtle about birth and it is a privilege to see. It was early in my career, when I took care of the hoofstock.

We were taking turns rotating watch over a pregnant giraffe. The vet couldn't be there 24 hours a day, so we worked alternating shifts. I was doing the night shift when the mama started pacing--giraffes give birth while standing. When I noticed her agitation, I thought briefly that I should call the vet--but I was enthralled--I couldn't have left if I wanted to. When the baby came out and landed--plunk--on the ground, I held my breath. And then, while the mama bent over and began to lick her baby, he struggled and stood immediately, looking dazed. I had tears in my eyes at the wonder of it all. To be a part of that birth in the middle of the quiet of the night was a treasure I will never forget.

I still get emotional when I bring a baby over to his mother's chest for the first time and see the family's tears of joy.

In the busy-ness of our days as nurses--or as zookeepers--or whatever career life finds us in at the time--it is those small, quiet moments that we should hang on to and cherish.

There are no past experiences in life that are irrelevant to our present work. There is always something that we can bring to nursing that we have learned in the past. If I apply for another job, I might just put "Zookeeper" back on my resume.

Edited by Joe V

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No Stars In My Eyes has 43 years experience and works as a Retired.

3 Likes; 1 Follower; 43,326 Visitors; 2,468 Posts


Lovely article and very well written!

I didn't work with the big animals, but I did work full time as 'The Animal Lady' in the Live Animal Room at a museum for several years, where we had local wildlife which often came to us as babies, or injured. I had already been a nurse for about 7-8 years, and was taking a break from nursing. The knowledge required for both jobs dove-tailed nicely.

You are right, there is so much you can tell just by observing.....Each animal had his/her own 'personality' and you have to allow for that when planning their care and how you treat and handle them. Same as with people!

And I had to judge how each animal would do with the public programs we gave several times a day and for school groups. They needed to be clean, well-fed, healthy, feel safe with you and not threatened by a crowd or group; didn't want visitors to get bit or pick up something unhealthy when they touched or patted the animal.

Lots and lots of hand washing involved, don't want cross-contamination! Dietary concerns, medication and treatments, and the always-necessary cleaning up.....

Of course, I've never, as a nurse, had to soak someone's paws or feet in Massengill douche for 10 minutes twice a day! A possum can get fungus on their feet; who knew? It is unacceptable for a possum to have peeling skin on their feet as it is socially unacceptable and grosses museum visitors out.

And I did learn something very important when helping the vet give vaccines, that I am not sure has a nursing/patient equivalent , and that would be : never try to grasp a skunk by the nape of the neck and try to hold it still. That skunk turned his head SO FAST and bit my thumb TWICE in 2 seconds. Wow, what exquisitely sharp PAIN! The only good thing was that he cracked my thumbnail clean in half, so I didn't need to have a hole drilled in the nail to relieve the pressure when the thumb swelled. I was treated for that bite by the Vet and never got any infection (good old Lugol's Solution. Oh, and of course I was already current with all MY vaccines!) Some of my co-workers were very worried that I didn't go to my doctor. Well, my gosh, if a Vet doesn't know how to treat animal bites, who does?

Birth, death, and everything in between. Though it was tougher with wildlife in some ways than with people in the sense that a 25% survival rate of a baby or injured animal is considered VERY good.

I now work with elderly critters in their natural habitats....I do private duty with a lot of 80 and 90 year olds in their homes or apartment or private room. :D

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3,765 Visitors; 12 Posts

Thanks for sharing your animals stories as well! Looks like we have something in common--I laughed at the possum and sorry, but I laughed at the skunk story--not that you got bit, but that you were treated by a vet. Love it!

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mizfradd has 11 years experience and works as a CNA II.

7,960 Visitors; 291 Posts

Well, my gosh, if a Vet doesn't know how to treat animal bites, who does? :D


Many moons ago it was said that entering/graduating vet school was harder than medical school.

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Julie Reyes has 6 years experience and works as a PICU RN.

12 Likes; 1 Follower; 44 Articles; 64,553 Visitors; 260 Posts

Boy did this article make me smile! :roflmao::yes:

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Fuzzy works as a veterinary technician or veterinary nurse (dependi.

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I've worked in veterinary medicine for 30 years. I started at the bottom as kennel person and moved up to lead certified veterinary technician years later. This is a great article as to the similarities of our jobs. I have told people that my job is like a pediatric nurse. My patients cannot talk and often they have no understanding as to what is being done to them and why. It is a big part of my job to make them feel as comfortable and as stress free as possible. One of my favorite books is "Zoobiquity Waht animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing" written by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz MD and Kathyrn Bowers.


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4,312 Visitors; 57 Posts

classicalcat - I love this! What a cool story. It just goes to show that having another career before nursing can definitely be helpful!

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1,464 Visitors; 48 Posts

I worked as a registered veterinary technician for 8 years, now as an RN for 5 years. All of my skills as an RVT has transfered completely. I work in Mother/baby now. Body language is key I can read babies as well as I did animals. They don't have to talk to me. Fear and pain are universal. I know how to calm both baby and mom with the skills I learned in animal medicine. Confidence and calmness is key. All My experiences have made me who I am and I wouldn't trade them for anything, poop and all

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