Lions, tigers, and bears, OH MY! Zookeepers appreciate their jobs and love the animals they care for, but these stories might encourage them to choose a different career path.
“I used to help with audience shows at an aquarium in New Jersey. We had yellowfin tuna in the 780,000-gallon ocean tank. Now, yellowfin are some of the ocean’s best and fastest swimmers. They can get up to 45mph underwater, which is cool when you would see the small school of them zip back and forth in the tank, but they’d have to stop every 70 feet or so because of the wall or make a quick pivot and try to circle around the tank.
One day, I was helping out with a dive show where divers were in the ocean tank behind a 50-foot-tall window and there was amphitheater seating in front of it. The amphitheater was packed with kids on field trips and they were watching as the tuna were zipping back and forth from one end of the tank to the other. The show people were yakking on about sea creatures, and the school of tuna were coming back this way full blast. And one of them didn’t make the turn fast enough. So I was looking right at it as it slammed into the thick acrylic window at full speed. It went:
Tuna, tuna, tuna, EXPLOSION!
Now there were other carnivorous animals in this tank, namely, 11 sharks, a few giant stingrays, and some loggerhead turtles, and lunch was served.
It was a feeding frenzy and the amphitheater of school kids was screaming bloody murder. Chaos erupted! Everyone was in shock. Some kids were trying to run away and climb over each other. The girl with the mic had no idea what to do. The diver in the tank just looked up as the swarming mass of ocean fury is taking place over his head. After about a minute it was more amazing than horrifying and people were glued to their seats.
Eventually, the sharks tore the tuna up into so many pieces everything dissipated and chunks of tuna sailed around the tank all day and you could see the turtles biting at a tuna head. Best day at the aquarium ever!”
Curiosity Almost Killed More Than The Cat
“We had an old arthritic tiger that died of old age. A new young and strong male tiger arrived from another zoo, and after a few days of settling into his den area, the keepers let him out into the tiger exhibit, which was surrounded by high fake-rock walls. They assumed it was tiger-proof because the old tiger had never gotten out. You see where this is going.
The keepers were standing around watching, some up on the wall; everyone was curious to see how the new tiger liked his new digs. He walked out, looked around, JUMPED, scrambled straight up vertically and FWOOP he levitated up over the wall and was standing there, completely free, staring at all the zookeepers.
Cat keeper said sternly, ‘No!’
The tiger gave him this startled look like, ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize,’ hopped back down into the exhibit, trotted inside his den area, and somebody had the wits to close the door.
Everybody looked at each other.
‘Let’s modify the exhibit a bit.’
They’re Lucky Their Job Was The Only Thing They Lost
“I used to intern at a zoo in Alabama. Once, a zookeeper let her guard down around one of the older lions while cleaning her cage by not securely latching the gate that divided her cage in two.
The lion opened the gate and jumped her. Thankfully, due to the lion’s old age, it didn’t have many of her teeth left and the keeper survived (albeit with many nasty injuries). The lion thankfully wasn’t put down, but the keeper was let go.
From what I remember, the employee was fairly negligent in general. I believe they saw this as the final straw, and they couldn’t risk their animals or the guests if she ever did it again.”
Don’t Get Too Close
“When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, our class went on a field trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. We all got off the bus and were having a pretty standard field trip for kids our age. We grouped up at the start of the trip to go see some of the more major exhibits and listen to zoo-people tell us stuff about the animals that we could barely understand.
We got to the gorilla exhibit where we saw all these cool gorillas treading around as we were all lined up over this fence above the pit/cage area. One gorilla, however, did not seem too happy because he was dragging a screaming female gorilla by her head and started smashing her head against a large rock. He continued to brutally bludgeon her while all the other gorillas lose their crap and started going wild. You would think this would be traumatizing enough for a fourth grader but wait…
The gorilla then decided to violate the mortally wounded female in front of all of us. Then after he was sick of her, he began to smash her head again and she just went limp upon which she was violated again.
Every single kid was screaming and crying, and all of the chaperones were losing their minds over what they just saw and tried to drag us away from the scene. One of the attendants/zookeepers was crying over it as well.”
What’s That Smell?
“I used to do work at a wildlife rehab center.
Skunks don’t like to spray, but they will if they need to. So we were trained on how to handle and deal with them as to not set them off. As a result, direct sprays were incredibly rare for us, luckily (though they’d sometimes get a towel or something, and the scent was naturally carried–much diluted–in their poo).
One day, we finally got a spray. The handler did everything right, but as she was withdrawing from the cage to lock it, BOOM, all over the back wall.
Now, we were sort of a low-end establishment, run out of a basement, and while we were clean and took good care of the animals, we were lacking in good ventilation. It wasn’t bad in mild weather when we could open things up, and intake was low in the winter, but in the summer, we tried to keep the windows closed because of AC.
So when that skunk set off, he had a captive audience.
So there we were, with fresh skunk spray, which smells bad enough, right? I mean, a full dose in an enclosed, poorly vented area is like a brick to the sinuses.
But this was no normal skunk. No.
This skunk was sick.
You know how when you get sick, your pee or poo can smell off? Or funky?
Yeah. This guy was really sick.
Regular skunk smell was no big deal in comparison. This was like a fleet of skunks had urinated on a pile of old tires, then the tires were set on fire, and then when they were stinky, skunky bits the skunks urinated on them again, left them in a hot car for three weeks, and then set them on fire one more time.
We had to evacuate. Volunteers were hurling in the driveway. We managed to fling the garage and entrance doors open, but that was the only external venting we had. The yard reeked of it. People had to leave. We finally got in long enough to point fans, turn off some stuff, check on the other animals (who didn’t seem bothered), all the while doing fast dashes and holding our breath.
I asked the director if she had any Vicks, and she thought I was crazy until I reminded her of that scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where they used it to help mask the smell of a rotting corpse. She got some and after some more airing out we smeared it on our upper lips, and those of us left were finally able to get back in.
It took a while to get the scent all the way out, but luckily, it was workable before long. But it lingered.
The kicker? The director lived upstairs. She had to live with it until it faded.”
There Are Warnings For A Reason
“It’s not uncommon for companies to have retreats and conferences at the big hotel belonging to the zoo, and they have the opportunity to see the animals at night. So my then-coworker, a small but extremely intimidating woman, and another female coworker had the job of taking a group on an evening tour.
First of all, they had been drinking a lot! So much so that about five of them were not allowed to even come with the rest of the group. The rest of them were unruly and obnoxious, all middle-aged men in suits who were rude to the ‘little girls.’
They came to the tiger exhibit, which is built into a large hill/cliff and you stand on this big bridge looking out over it. No real fence, just the bridge wall that’s like chest-high with these crenellations so kids can see. Anyway, the women were talking about the tigers and two men were clearly not listening. The group left and the women decided to count them. Surprise, two were missing!
They rushed back and saw the two men about to JUMP into the exhibit! I mean, you won’t die from the fall but you will absolutely break a leg or two, and you know, four tigers are in there! My coworkers managed to run up and grab the idiots and pull them down from the wall. They got angry and one of them said, ‘If little girls like you can play with them, I am sure two men like us can handle them.’
They are not pets! Once and for all, animals in zoos are not tame! You can’t just cuddle with the tigers! Not one person that works there can cuddle with the tigers!
The tour was stopped, and security, and later cops, were called. That company is now banned and my coworker wanted to murder someone the next day. I quote: ‘I almost wish we hadn’t made it in time, but think of the paperwork.'”
They Should Maybe Check The Locks At Night
“I wasn’t a zookeeper, but I did work at a zoo for a while. Among other crazy stuff, one night the electronic locks failed on the baboon enclosure and the doors opened by themselves, so the baboons wandered on out – all 15 or so of them! The head veterinarian was working late and looked out of her window to see, to her shock and surprise, a baboon walk by! She called the primate keepers in and they spent the entire night luring the baboons back with their favorite treat, bananas, only just getting them all back in about half an hour before the zoo was due to open.
Another time, the binturong (kind of like a cross between a bear and a cat) escaped the zoo walls and climbed a tree in the park outside. The cops were called and were ready to shoot the poor animal because they didn’t know what it was and thought it was dangerous, until the keeper arrived, picked the binturong up, and took him back to his cage!”
Why Would You Do That?
“Once, at the Belfast Zoo, some jerks broke in at night and climbed into the penguin enclosure. They beat them with stones and bars and then threw one into the lions.
It was awful.”
They’ve Seen Their Fair Share Of Incidents
“I’ve worked at a few zoos. Here’s some that I remember seeing or legends that I’ve heard from older staff:
- A bear managed to climb out of the enclosure before opening. She was just taking a stroll but they had to dart tranq, monitor until unconscious, and move her back.
- Supposedly this happened before I started: apparently, some visitor jumped into the bear exhibit. The policy in emergencies to prevent the idiot getting hurt and to avoid a ‘Harambe’ situation was to use bear-strength mace. The keeper used it, some flew back into their face with the wind, and they ended up with some pretty serious PTSD.
- The koalas had an outdoor area to chill and be visible to guests. Some middle school student apparently ran up and stuffed the koala into his backpack. He tried to give it to his middle school girlfriend as a gift, and luckily she was smart enough to let someone know.
- Someone reached in and stole a turtle on the free admission day at the zoo.
- People were continually resting young children on the railings or let them lean over barriers, then get mad when asked to stop. Especially on things like hyenas and African wild dogs that would eat you in a heartbeat.
- The hyena would eat and poop out a fully formed koosh-ball
- The river otters climbed the fake trees and tried to figure out a way over the walls of their habitat.”
The Worst Animals Are Sometimes Outside Of The Exhibit
“I worked at a major aquarium for five years, and people are hands down the worst animals at aquariums! I have so many stories but here are just a few:
We would have after-hour sleepovers, and we would constantly have to break up and call security on parents that we caught hooking up under the shark tank. It was multiple times that this happened which blows my mind, and there were kids sleeping like right next to the parents! I honestly think that some of these people have some weird shark fetish!
Divers would constantly find coins thrown into open exhibits in the gravel and one time a dolphin ate one and needed emergency surgery.
A group of girls once dared one of their friends to jump into the dolphin exhibit which she did, she ended up with a lifetime ban. They went easy on her, you will be arrested if you attempt to go into an exhibit. Some of these animals are extremely delicate and rare, it’s not taken lightly.
A baby dropped her pacifier in the stingray exhibit and the parents demanded that we give the pacifier back, but it easily could have had stingray feces on it and we had to dispose of it. It was seriously one of those $1 pacifiers.
A kid was leaning over a touch pool and proceeded to projectile vomit into it. We had to get a bucket and attempt to scoop it out and then we just let it run through the filters.
The sharks get rough when they get it on. They bite each other when they mate and people would constantly freak out and think they were eating each other; nope they’re just doing the nasty!
Honestly, there hasn’t been any animal escapes or anything crazy happening with the animals. All of my stories seem to be weird stuff that the public has done.”
You Think People Would Be Careful At A Place Like This
“I never worked as a zookeeper but I’ve trained as one and had multiple internships at a zoo. We were told so many stories by the zookeepers.
The most interesting thing I got to be part of was when two of the tigers were being neutered. One was male, so it was done on site in one of the cages. The female we had to take down to the clinic. It was funny seeing the visitors turning and looking as we drove the sleeping tiger through the park. The best part was listening to the vet as he was doing the procedure. He had a bit of a problem finding the second ovary and complained that there was too much fat in the way.
In the safari park, they once found a car parked and the people missing. After some searching they found a German family having a picnic. Luckily, they chose to do this in the first enclosure which contained mooses, deer and European bison and not the once with predators but it is still dangerous. An ill-tempered moose is not something you want to be around.
I was there once as a kid and a car had broken down in the African savannah part of the safari park and an ostrich was ‘helping’ by pecking at the engine.
A classmate of mine got a summer job working the gates between the enclosures and a lady stepped out between the wolf/bear and the lion enclosures. It almost gave my classmate a heart attack, and she had to shout for the lady to get back in the car.
Someone tried to give their kid a pee break in the lion enclosure once. Luckily a zookeeper passed by and told them to get back in their car.
On a more serious note. There was once a man from Germany that stepped out of his car in the lion enclosure and tried to take a lion cub. The zookeepers had to use their cars to chase the lions off and block so they could get to him. He didn’t survive.
I’m glad they stopped letting cars go through the safari park. Now there is a cable car line going through instead.
There was also the wolf incident a couple of years ago where a zookeeper was killed. It was hard for a lot of people I know. One of our teachers who knew the zookeeper quite well was pestered by the press for a while.”
Quoth The Raven, Nevermore
“We have a raven at our zoo. Ravens are very, very smart, but temperamental.
She is trained to do certain commands for food, and one of them is ‘pet.’ She will lower her head and let you stroke her for a few minutes, then she gets a treat.
Generally, our staff are competent and have good common-sense. And even in this case, a lady was more than capable of caring for the animals, but just loved them …. a little too much.
A coworker came in, greeted the raven, and asked to pet it. She petted the raven and it cooed to her before turning away to start cleaning.
WELL… the raven was not pleased, and, after realizing what happened, jumped on the coworker’s back and ripped a huge chunk of her scalp off.
This same raven was removed from the exhibit after throwing rocks at the neighboring animals, and luring wild birds into her enclosure and torturing them to death in front of visitors.”
And He Thought It Was A Fake
“This one is about my stupidity. We were on vacation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and went to the little zoo there. My wife is extremely afraid of snakes, so she’s always a little skittish at zoos.
We were walking along and saw what appeared to be a large albino python curled up on the ground in the middle of an open area. She freaked out, of course. I assured her that there was no way that they would just leave a big snake like that unattended on the grounds. It had to be a fake.
To prove it, I walked up and prodded it with my foot. As soon as my foot touched it, I knew I was wrong. It was a live albino python, and it looked right at me. I backpedaled as fast as I could and apologized to my wife and kids for being an idiot. A zoo employee came up and asked what I thought I was doing. I gave some lame answer and asked him what a snake was doing loose on the grounds. He gave some lame answer, and went to wrangle it back into its cage.”
He Had No Idea How Close He Came To Death
“I once almost saw a kid get eaten by a wolf.
I was at the zoo with my family and the workers got to walk around the timber wolves. They kept telling everyone within 100 feet to get back.
They came around one corner and this random kid came running down a hill full force screaming ‘DOGGY DOGGY!!!’
The workers starting yelling at him to stop running. All this yelling and chaos made the wolves get all hyper. One of the wolves locked onto the kid and started to growl. The kid stopped when he saw all of the wolves’ teeth and backed away. The wolves continued walking as one of the workers stayed behind to talk to the kid.
I overheard the worker asking where his mom was, he pointed over at the picnic bench and there was a lady no older than 18 smoking. The worker went over to her and talked to her, the mom just rolled her eyes and didn’t listen.”