Lessons from the Animal Kingdom: Zookeeper Edition

In the third week of July, zoos around the country celebrate their hardest working, most dedicated employees– the zookeepers. It’s National Zookeeper Week, and I felt it would be neat to discover some of the great life lessons zookeepers can teach us.

I’ve written about zookeepers before. In case your memory fails you, I was a zookeeper and animal care professional for 15 years before starting ZooFit. The pillars of ZooFit are the main practicing philosophies of zookeepers– positive reinforcement, enrichment, and conservation. What I teach others about fitness today is heavily influenced by what I learned by taking care of animals. But zookeepers don’t just have fun fitness lessons, they actually can impart valuable lessons to optimize our life and change how we approach problems.. 

Here are some valuable life lessons from the animal kingdom, to celebrate National Zookeeper Week.

Focus on the Positives in Life

Zookeepers use positive reinforcement to motivate and empower their animals

The first lesson I taught myself when starting on my fitness journey was to reject the tired old punishment mentality and adopt a positive reinforcement mentality. This is how animal trainers and zookeepers work with their animals. We don’t focus on the mistakes or failures made, but on the positives, celebrating each step of the way.

This mentality helps motivate and empower our animals. They don’t learn helplessness or that mistakes are something to be avoided. Zookeepers make learning fun, a game where the animal always wins.

It’s the mentality I want to focus on for this lesson. Our society and culture is so focused on the negative. We rarely leave a positive review, but if we have a bad experience, we make sure EVERYONE knows about it. In fitness, negativity runs rampant as we guilt, shame, and berate ourselves into doing what we “should” do to lose weight, eat healthy, and get our doctors off our backs.

But imagine for a moment we adopt the zookeeper mentality of focusing only on the positive. Not just what it would do to motivate us to achieve our goals, but mentally, what it would do for us.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist and author of Happier and Pursuit of Perfect says that when we appreciate the good in life, the good in life appreciates. That’s what the zookeeper mentality of focusing on the positive does. It appreciates the good in life, and when we apply this principle, the good appreciates– physically in achieving our goals, and mentally with enjoying the process.

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemon Enrichment

I’ll admit one of my not-so-great ideas. I wanted to make the word “MacGyver” a verb that described how resourceful zookeepers create and provide enrichment to their animals. Zookeepers are the most resourceful people in the world. Which reminded me of the 80s television show, where the title character got out of sticky situations with, like a paper clip. But no one knows who MacGyver is, and besides, I realized there was only ONE MacGyver, but there are thousands of zookeepers. And yes, ALL zookeepers seem to share this innovative trait to physically and mentally engage their animals.

I think a better term for being resourceful and turning non-ideal situations into something fun is “zookeepering”. I thought I was achieving enrichment greatness when I found ways to reuse boat fenders as elephant toys. But I know keepers who turned garbage containers into hay feeders. Yogurt cups into hide and seek games. And don’t get me started on the dozens of uses of bamboo and paper towel rolls.

If we had only a paper clip, I’m sure we’d find a way to enrich our animals with that, too.

So, what’s the lesson here? Well, it’s more than when life hands you lemons, turn it into a positive. It’s about turning the figurative TRASH in our minds and in our lives into something valuable, and fun.

What’s the best way to enrich our animals’ lives? It turns out with innovative out-of-the-box thinking. So, if something is trashing your motivation, find a way to make it fun. Turn it into a game, or figure out how you can learn from it. When life hands you lemons, they are providing a wonderful opportunity to enrich ourselves. So let’s see this gift for what it is, and “zookeeper” your situation to make the best of it.

This is some serious zookeepering with a mop-head enrichment

You Don’t Have to Keep to Care

When I left the animal care field to pursue this crazy little dream called ZooFit, I was terrified. My entire life I had wanted to be an animal trainer, and I was happy living my dream. I didn’t know how I would handle NOT being a zookeeper. 

While it’s not exactly the same as working with animals, I smile at my old self. Yes, I miss the animals, but just because I’m not at the zoo doesn’t mean I can’t make a significant difference in the lives of animals– in zoos and around the world. In fact, my love for animals and the lessons they share with me personally and with the world has only grown. It was after I left the zoo that I fell in love with the lesson of the Hummingbird, and how she teaches us to do what we can, for ourselves, and the planet. I learned incredible lessons from oysters, sea squirts, and tigers, without ever having worked with them. 

Turns out, keepers really care about animals and conservation, but you don’t have to be a keeper to care. In fact, the world NEEDS everyone, keepers and non-keepers alike to do what they can to make a difference. A theme for National Zookeeper Week is It Takes a Zoo, a rift off the idea “it takes a village”. It does take zoos to inspire others to learn, care, and act. We need zoos, and we especially need zookeepers to show us how our small actions can change the world. We need zookeepers to help us, but we don’t need to be zookeepers to do the work! That’s what I am loving about ZooFit. I take all the amazing practices from zookeeping, and share how we can apply those philosophies to our own lives. We don’t have to be a keeper to practice zookeeping. We can do it everyday.

Celebrate Zookeepers

Whether you love animals, love zoos, or want to make a difference in conservation efforts, you can learn a lot from the natural world. Luckily, we have some amazing interpreters out there in the form of zookeepers. So, this week, and every week, thank zookeepers for everything they do for the animals, for the community, and for the planet. And especially for the valuable life lessons to make our world a better place!

Check out my podcast Zoo-notable for more great lessons from zookeepers and the animal kingdom.

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