Project Nature Blog

Behind the Scenes at the Zoo

What Happens Behind the Scenes at the Zoo?

A trip to the zoo is a fantastic way to spend a day with kids. The animals are fun to watch, there is usually plenty of space to roam and some zoos offer special play areas or exhibits. There is so much more happening behind the scenes though.

Zoo are expensive to run and require long hours with challenging animal requirements but those who do it, wouldn’t trade their jobs for anything. Zoos have changed over the years and now feature more naturalistic exhibits with nationwide captive breeding program.

A zookeeper’s day starts early before visitors show up. There are exhibits to clean, animals to feed and medical care to provide. Most zoos actually provide round-the-clock care for their animals with new Moms and aging animals in need of extra care. In recent years, zoos have begun to standardize feeding practices across the country. This means the Cleveland Zoo feeds their animals the same diet as the Woodland Park Zoo. This is important as animals are often transferred to other zoos for breeding programs. Many of the animals in zoos are endangered so zoos spend a lot of time on breeding programs to help boost the animals population and prevent them from going extinct.

One thing that will surprise a lot of zoo visitors is that a lot of animals are not on display. There are many reasons for animals to live behind the scenes. Some animals are too young to be on display. Newborns might be kept behind the scenes to increase bonding with their parent or there just might be too many of them. Other animals are used for educational purposes from public shows or parties. By using off-exhibit creatures, staff can put together a live animal presentation without emptying the displays.

Food and space keep captive animals alive but they need enrichment activities to keep from getting bored. Zookeepers come up with enrichment activities to keep animals engaged and to help them display behaviors they’d exhibit in the wild. These activities can range from changing their scenery to adding items to their exhibits. Disney World’s Animal Kingdom places perfumes and spices around the tiger paddock to encourage their natural behavior of scenting.

Nocturnal animals often have to adjust when they arrive at a zoo. Zoos have designated nocturnal house with thick walls and dim lights. They leave the dim red, blue, green and yellow lights on during the day so guests can observe the animals when they are awake. At night, they turn on bright fluorescent bulbs to imitate daytime hours and reverse the animals’ normal sleep cycles.

Educational programs advance the zoo’s mission by inspiring and cultivating an informed community of conservation stewards. For example, Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) in Seattle is the Washington hub for excellence in conservation education, WPZ programs are guided by a robust, science and outcomes-based framework for inspiring conservation:

• Connecting children to nature
• Developing ecological literacy
• Providing pathways to conservation

From early learners to senior learners, and on and off grounds, WPZ’s developmental approach to lifelong learning is to foster empathy for nature, build conservation knowledge and skills, and increase people’s personal ownership for action that benefits wildlife and habitats.

Running a zoo takes more than a love for animals (though that certainly helps). There are hours of paperwork needed to transfer animals to another zoo, knowledge of endangered animals and a willingness to work hard.

By Rebecca Mongrain