BUFFALO NY - The life of a Zookeeper, while full of rewards few can imagine, is also not an easy one.
The nature of zoos is changing constantly, evolving from the old philosophy of basic maintenance to the new challenges of providing more natural habitat and enrichment for the animals in their care, and leading conservation efforts.
Lynn Hougle is the Sea Lion and Otter Keeper at the Buffalo Zoo. Dallas is a 750 pound male Seal Lion in Lynn's care. Their decade-long relationship is one based on understanding and patience.
"We have only, I wouldn't even call it control, we have so much cooperation with our animals, if Dallas doesn't want to interact with me, he doesn't have to," Hougle says. "Or if he's bored, he can say, 'I'm done' and swim away. He's 760 pounds, there's nothing I can do to force an animal of that size to do anything."
Not all of the keepers are able to interact so closely with their animals, but that doesn't lessen the bonds that connect them.
The Gorilla keepers must keep their distance for a number of reasons, including the primate's strength and to prevent diseases that may spread from human to gorilla. But the main reason is one of utmost importance.
"They're very intelligent," explains Buffalo Zoo Lead Gorilla Keeper Jamie Kranz. "So it takes only short, meaningful training sessions with them, so for them, we want them to have their bond to their troop to be greater than the bond they have with us."
Meal time is one of mental enrichment as well as physical. Keepers place a number of different food challenges in the enclosure each day.
Kranz says that it's important stimulation that is an every day thing in the wild.
"We're the ones preparing their diet and bringing them nice buckets of food, whereas in the wild they have to actively get up and search for stuff, so we're trying to keep them mentally stimulated, physically stimulated, it's just something to keep them stimulated throughout the day, keep them active," Kranz says.
The connection is definitely a two way street.
"It's a hard job," says Hougle. "But we love it! Each of our animals, they're like our kids."
Kranz agrees. "We care more about these animals than anyone. They're part of our daily lives. "
The ever-changing relationship between keeper and animal mirrors the evolution of zoo philosophy.
It's no longer about entertainment. The stakes are much higher now, zoos may be the last oasis for many species. Conservation and inspiration present the mission for the future.
"I think you develop a good connection seeing that animal doing it's thing," Hougle says. "And zoos are one of the few places where you can really still do that."
"It used to be that zoos were in it for themselves, they wanted to be the best, the first, and now it no longer happens, everyone shares information," Kranz says. "It's a global community that comes together to really research and develop what is the best care for these animals. "
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