The MacGyver Factor


I’ve often referred to zookeepers as the MacGyvers of the professional world.  I can’t think of any other profession where employees routinely think quick on their feet, respond immediately to issues, and utilize resources the way zookeepers do.  We are innovative, creative, and inventive, the Ravenclaws for the Care of Truly Magical Creatures.  This resourcefulness I learned in the animal care field has helped me more times than I can count, as a zookeeper, as a writer, as a fitness enthusiast, and as a conservationist.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching the old MacGyver show, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than it may give you more ideas for enrichment.  If MacGyver can make a bomb out of pine cones, we can certainly find several more productive uses for our animals from the abundantly available natural resource.

When I was younger, I used to repeatedly listened to Denis Leary’s stand up routine entitled “No Cure for Cancer”.  It isn’t work place appropriate, so if you listen to it, please do so in the privacy of your own home, but there is a part where Leary talks about marijuana usage leading people to discover carpentry. “This box would make an excellent bong.  This apple would make an excellent bong.  This guy’s head would make an excellent bong.”  When I was a zookeeper trying to come up with fun and engaging enrichment items for my animals, I was often reminded of the skit. I feel zookeepers have been somewhat cursed with the same innovation, when we’ve been doing enrichment long enough, we start to see everything as potential enrichment for our animals.  “They’re cutting down a tree in my neighborhood, I hope I can nab some of the branches for perching.”  “Look at this yogurt container.  I bet Boomer would have a fun time with this!”  “Don’t throw away the toilet paper roll!  I need that for my enrichment project.”  And don’t deny we all have piles and piles of boxes stashed in a corner somewhere in our unit, because, you know, enrichment!

Don’t even get me started on the possibilities with snow!

I bet any amount of money by simply giving a zookeeper a box, rope or string, a pile of leaves, and a knife, he or she would design a terrific device to keep their animals mentally and physically active within thirty minutes. In fact, I’d be willing to bet many of you were just imagining what you could do with a box, some string, and a pile of leaves simply because I mentioned them.  You probably also considered what to do with a pine cone, a yogurt container, and a paper towel roll.

Some people see a beautiful forest. Me? Browse, as far as the eye can see!

As a zookeeper, I looked for the potential of enrichment in everything I encountered, but particularly what I threw away. I became somewhat obsessed with discovering how many different enrichment items could be made using the thick stalks of bamboo.  Bamboo was an excellent source of browse, however, most animals didn’t like the thick, fibrous, woody stalks from which the leafy goodness grew. Therefore, whenever there was a substantial bamboo donation, I greeted it with relief and dismay.  Browsing opportunities would be had, true, but cleaning up the leftovers and disposing of them would be a drag. Because I khated wasting the perfectly good stalks of bamboo, I started a multi-year, multi-taxa project I lovingly called “101 Things to Do With Bamboo”.  I had quite a list.  Anything and everything counted.  

  • Puzzle feeders for grain pellets by drilling holes in the hollow segments
  • Or, instead of grain pellets, pour fruit juice in the hollow segments and freeze them to turn them into bamboo popsicles. (This was particularly entertaining to watch elephants come up with different methods to retrieve the icy treat inside.  One would methodically tap the stalks against rocks to crack it and then literally peel the bamboo way from the ice treat.  Another would simply smoosh the bamboo with her feet, and slurp the ice treats off the floor or her foot)
  • Ice treats with bamboo stalks sticking out  
  • Bamboo mobiles
  • Bamboo puzzle feeders inside other puzzle feeders
  • Rattles
  • Browse holders
  • Holiday themed bamboo devices, like the turkey I made with a pumpkin and a few stalks of bamboo, or the “rockets” I made for 4th of July.

Not to mention reusing heart-shaped cake molds for St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks

I always wanted to send the list of what I had created so far with bamboo to the zookeeper community so we could add to it, share ideas, and steal some that we wanted to try.  To me, the list demonstrated just how resourceful we can be as animal caretakers.  We don’t waste anything, and when materials are limited, you can always count on a zookeeper to know exactly how to make the best of the situation.  We are pros at turning lemons into lemonade.

I don’t enrich animals at a zoo anymore, but I still utilize my skills for resourcefulness in my home life and in fitness.  It’s the fitness aspect, as an enthusiast, and as a personal trainer, motivating others to push themselves and get healthy, that I have found the Macgyver Factor has benefitted the most.  Because of my ability to use materials available to their fullest potential, I have not just inspired others to get fit, but to reduce their waste and think outside the box.  

You don’t have to buy a gym membership to get in shape. I have come to realize you don’t even need to have all the equipment in gyms and fitness centers to workout. I don’t own a lot of store bought equipment. In fact, I don’t own one single dumbbell or barbell.  Instead, I used my zookeeper skills to find what I need and use what is available.  I may not be able to do bench presses, but I can always practice push-ups, which works the same muscle, and can be done absolutely anywhere. I use benches in parks, bus stops, or on trails to perform dips. Benches are also great for working on step-ups, ab exercises, squats, and even plugging in a little extra cardio. I have full workouts I do utilizing nothing but a park bench, and I leave completely exhausted.

I play on playgrounds and practice pull-ups on monkey bars.  I’ve used heavy rocks and logs to practice deadlifts. I’ve done what I call “Alligator Crawls” and “Itchy Bear Crawls” under structures, like fallen logs, benches.  I don’t even need to be outdoors. Everything I need for a decent workout is right at home. I’ve used regular household objects such as a bag of potatoes, or the cat litter containers to do weighted squats.  What’s more is I’ve been able to share these ideas with clients, who then feel empowered to workout on their own. They in turn create their own ideas of ways they can utilize the MacGyver Factor in their fitness.

So why am I sharing all this with you?  For one, it’s a sentiment of gratitude to other zookeepers- thank you for showing me how to use my creativity in incredibly productive ways.  I also want to show how our actions can create a ripple effect that spreads into the community.  If zookeepers can provide great care for their animals using materials available to them, why can’t our visitors use their own resources to better themselves?  Or animals in their home?  Or, even, dare I say, to make the community, and even the world, a better place? This is another way our skills working with animals can influence our visitors to think about ways they can use materials available, create less waste, and think outside the box.  Our little action of inventive enrichment could indeed inspire a whole concept of imaginative ingenuity to make the world a little better.

My time as a zookeeper gave me many ideas and skills that I have successfully incorporated into my own personal lifestyle.  It’s a ripple effect that shows how everything is connected, including our smallest of actions to the bigger picture of protecting the environment.  Making do with what we have isn’t out of necessity.  It’s out of habit.  We waste nothing.  We see potential in everything.  We appreciate our resources for what they provide to us and our animals.  If you are ever stuck, simply ask yourself, “What would MacGyver do?”, and carry on. We are MacGyver, and we are changing the world with our ingenuity!

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