Palm Beach Zoo zookeepers: Rewarding but dangerous work

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.-- Some of the most powerful animals on earth are right in Palm Beach County at the Palm Beach Zoo.  Zookeepers must work to do some of the most dangerous jobs as they care for majestic creatures.

At the Palm Beach Zoo, much of the territory belongs to human curiosity, but steps away, zookeepers work around nature's instincts to keep visitors safe.  They must never allow the animals to come in direct contact with the public.

Ashley Yates works with majestic jaguars. 

"There's always danger to working with carnivores," she said.

The zookeepers know the individual animals and their behavior.  They have been carefully trained to care for the animals' well-being as they ensure the animals never come in contact with the public directly.  For brief periods of time each day, the animals are coaxed into an enclosure that connects to their exhibit.  This allows keepers to take a closer look at them, feed the animals and tend to the enclosures.

Lizz Capo feeds 300-pound Malayan Tigers in tandem with another keeper.  In pairs, the keepers must constantly be aware of where each animal is located, as gates, locks and sliding doors are repeatedly checked.

With a deep tonal growl, the tigers "talk" to Capo, excited for their meal of raw, ground meat.  She rolls some meat into a ball and asks one of them to stand "up," while using sign language.  The tiger stretches to put its paws on the gate separating the two, and Capo gets a good look at the animal. 

Using positive reinforcement through husbandry training multiple times each day, Capo and the staff are able to look at ask each animal to show their bodies off from different angles, confirming they appear healthy.  Capo never touches them directly; she rolls the food under the gate or uses a food chute built into the enclosure to deliver the raw meat.

"They are very used to food coming through, so you put your fingers through, there is not real differentiation there, and you're not going to want to put yourself in that position," she explains. 

Now that the jaguars have been fed, Yates checks multiple gates and locks again to make sure the animals are temporarily in a locked house that attaches to their enclosure.

"Before we go in I always check this door, so we pull on it, pull that lock just to double check, you can never be too careful," she said.

She enters the enclosure with another keeper, and the two begin to grab and yank on the fencing that surrounds the jaguars' home.

"And we pull on it and kind of scan it all the way up to make sure there's no holes or anything and make sure that the fence doesn't have any unusual give," she said.

The perimeters of the enclosures are built to allow sunlight and fresh air throughout.  The jaguar exhibit has a rushing waterfall, trees and sloping hills with rocks and grass.  The enclosures are hotwired so if an animal were to attempt escape, they would receive a small, uncomfortable shock. 

The animals are fed and cared for multiple times a day.  They are also given "enrichment" to challenge their diets and minds.

While the 400-pound North American Black Bears Lewis and Clark are briefly locked up, Yates works with a keeper to clean and check the perimeters.  Then the pair stash treats for the animals to find.  They drop cut oranges into stacked boxes and drop blueberries into PVC tubes. 

As the humans exit, they go through numerous safety checks again before they allow the animals back in to the lush enclosures.  The bears meander to the boxes and tubes, finding a way to remove the fruit and slurp it down.

"You can have all of the safety in the world, but we are always well trained and well aware of what we're doing.  Constantly.  You have to be on your toes when you're working with these guys," Yates said.

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