The Scope of Zoos Today
Today, wild animals are kept in a wide range of settings. These include:
- Zoos or Zoological Gardens;
- Open Range Zoos or Safari Parks;
- Roadside Zoos;
- Petting Zoos;
- Amusement Parks;
- Private collections.
Many modern zoos have a common ethos of contributing to education, conservation and research while providing entertainment to visitors.
It does not matter where or what you study zoo keeping; a course is only ever going to be part of what you need to be successful in this as a job.
We strongly recommend that you try to undertake relevant field experience while studying this course. This will help to reinforce the information you have learnt and provide invaluable experience understanding the workings of zoos. If you cannot get work experience at a zoo you might try to get experience with a wildlife rescue group, the RSPCA, with a wildlife carer or veterinary surgery.
Combined with some practical experience, this course is an excellent foundation, giving you a much better chance of success than what you would have with either one alone.
Working with Animals
A major safety risk at zoos arises from working with animals. There are a number of hazards faced by employees when working in close proximity to animals. The main two risks of working with animals include the potential spread of disease from animals to humans (zoonosis) and risk of injury from the animal – eg. biting, mauling, scratches. Impact injuries such as crushing, bruising and fractures from larger animals.
Other factors may influence the potential risk for injury such as the predatory nature of the animal, reactions of both humans and animals to fear, the natural group instinct of animals and hierarchical behaviour and the fact that some animals are built to kill or injure other animals.
It is important for employees to be aware of these risks as well as the fact that these risks change with age, sex, grouping behaviour and sexual maturity of certain animals. Employees should be properly trained in how to work and handle animals (when necessary) and zoo keepers should always have relevant experience for working with different animals. There are specific guidelines for working with large and dangerous animals such as elephants, large cats and snakes as they pose the greatest risk. Many countries have strict guidelines for working with different animals. The United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, has identified categories of risk for certain animals. These categories are linked with specific procedures and guidelines. The UK categories are:
- Greater risk (Category 1): contact is likely to result in serious injury or threat to life (eg. large carnivores, primates and venomous snakes)
- Less risk (Category 2): where contact may result in injury/illness but would not be life threatening (eg. medium-sized mammals/primates and some bird species, including birds of prey)
- Least risk (Category 3): includes those animals not listed above (eg. smaller mammals, birds and some reptiles and amphibians).
Zoo employees need to be aware that research on behaviour of all animals kept in zoos is not comprehensive and that risk assessment principles should be adopted before handling animals.
The HS recommends that UK zoos adopt a non-contact policy for those animals in category 1. Of course this is not always possible and there are exceptional circumstances where risk is minimised do the age of the animal, contact is necessary for veterinary reasons, the animal is under anaesthetic or the animal is in a controlled situation (such as a crush cage). Again, it is worthwhile researching the categories of risk for animals in your own country or region.
Moving Animals within a Zoo
This can be one of the most hazardous operations within a zoo. Moving animals requires experienced staff, careful planning and an accurate identification of potential hazards. Both the animal’s welfare and the safety of staff are major concerns when relocating animals. If possible, staff should avoid manual handling of the animal. If this is not possible, this should be kept to a minimum and be carried out by appropriately trained and experienced staff.
Consideration should also be given to the type of equipment required such as suitable lifting equipment, crates or cages that may be needed and vehicles to be used (if any). These should all be inspected prior to moving for any potential risks or maintenance issues.
Each animal species will require a different form of restraint to ensure the safety of both the zoo staff and the animal. Below are a few examples of restraints used for some animals.
- Snakes - chemical restraint is often used for restraining snakes. Zoo and veterinary staff need to be careful when choosing which chemical restraint as some can have undesirable side effects (eg. respiratory depression or prolonged recovery).
- Giraffes – giraffes can be conditioned to use a chute or crush as a restraining technique. These need to be specifically designed for the physiology of the giraffe with additional restraining bars to restrict movement.
- Sea Lions –box cages are used to restrain sea lions. Staff can also use herding boards and nets to move them to boxes. Senior staff regularly train sea lions to enter boxes. They may also use herding as a capture technique, but this is generally used as a last resort.
Case Study – Capturing and Restraining Lions
Capturing a lion within a zoo enclosure is a dangerous OH&S risk. When capturing a lion, keepers need to be aware of claws, teeth and strength of the lion to overpower a human. Every precaution needs to be taken to ensure the safety of zoo staff. Capture should be undertaken during the period of least activity for lions (eg. middle of the day or early afternoon). Small cats can be captured and restrained with a fine mesh net or snare. There is a range of PPE that need to be worn during the capture. Other equipment might include blow darts, welder’s gloves, squeeze cage, chain for physical restraint, a canvas sheet or stretcher and food.
Squeeze cages are commonly used for lions. The body of the cat should be squeezed from side to side. Adults should generally be baited into cages with food. Some may have to be immobilised before moving. In this case, the sheet or stretcher must be used to move the lion.
Zoos are required to ensure that animals (especially dangerous animals) are effectively contained so that risk of escape is low. Containment will generally take the form of an outer perimeter boundary of the entire zoo as well as enclosure boundaries which may include cages, tanks, pools, fences, walls, moats or ditched enclosures.
The legislation regarding enclosure design and size will again vary from country to country as well as within countries. Enclosures must be designed to ensure that animals cannot escape. Consideration must also be given to the hazards associated with these boundaries. Some of these include:
- Rescue equipment needs to be supplied for enclosures with moats or where visitors/staff may accidentally fall into an enclosure.
- Buffers need to be in place where there is risk of animals coming into contact with visitors through a barrier.
- The type of material used must be able to withstand repeated attacks by animals, adverse weather conditions, access for staff for cleaning or repair as well as visibility for safety and aesthetic reasons.
- Gates and doors need to be able to contain animals while allow free access by staff.
Signage is required for many reasons in zoos, but is particularly important for enclosures that may be dangerous to visitors. For example, enclosures that use an electric fence barrier require suitable signage. In many countries it is suggested that warning signs need to be:
- Of suitable size
- Give reasonable warning of the danger
- Use words, symbols or both.
Veterinary procedures need to be undertaken in conjunction with relevant legislation and regulations. There are many risks associated with veterinary procedures including:
- X-ray and radiography – exposure should be kept as low as possible and not exceed doses specified in relevant regulations.
- Storage of drugs– these need to be stored securely and accessible only to authorised staff.
- Use of drugs – veterinary staff need to follow specific protocols and procedures to ensure minimal risk of injury or infection to staff when administering drugs.
- Records – it is usually a requirement that records of all drugs used and stored are kept by the zoo and are made available for inspection if required.
- Health and Safety – all staff working in veterinary procedures need to be aware of associated health and safety risks. Vaccinations may also be required in some countries. For example, in Australia, staff working with bats and flying foxes are required to be vaccinated against the Lyssavirus.
Public contact with animals
There have been many changes over the years in zoo designs and practices to increase the likelihood of public contact with animals. Enclosure design has changed, such as the removal of visual barriers including cages to improve visitor experience and the welfare of animals. Enclosures that increase the likelihood of interaction include walk-through enclosures, drive-through exhibits, touch pools, contact areas (such as petting zoo areas). Some animals are also moved around zoos while visitors are present. This might be for educational purposes or for transferral.
With increased interaction between humans and animals there is greater risk of injury to humans as well as animal welfare issues. Many countries have health and safety laws that do not allow direct contact between visitors and dangerous (eg. category 1) animals.
Animal feeding by visitors is becoming more common in zoos and can be an additional source of revenue. However, there are risks associated with feeding activities such as the risk of infection of zoonotic diseases. Zoos are generally required to make sure that visitors are aware of these risks and provide facilities for visitors to wash or sterilise their hands following contact.
Before allowing contact between visitors and animals, many zoos are required to carry out a risk assessment to visitor health and plan on appropriate control measures. They are also required to educate the visitors on the related risks. This information can be conveyed in various ways such as on feed bags, in zoo brochures, signage at enclosures or entry to zoo or through verbal instructions by zoo employees.
To reduce the chance of disease spread it is important that animals are also excluded from areas where visitors consume food and drink.
As mentioned above, zoonosis are diseases that are transmissible between humans and other animals. Zoonosis are a significant issue for zoo WH&S. The types of zoonosis that may be encountered by zoo keepers and visitors to zoo will vary with the animals and the region the zoo is in. Below are examples of some of the more common zoonosis found in zoos. Be aware that this list is in no way exhaustive.
- Cryptosporidiosis – found in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. In faeces. Hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects. Contaminated drinking water also a source of infection.
- Leptospirosis – found in rat urine. Therefore found in materials contaminated by rat’s urine, storage areas and contaminated water. Transmitted through cuts or abrasions in the skin and nose, mouth and eyes lining.
- Psittacosis (Ornithosis) – disease found in exotic and domestic birds. Usually transmitted through dust inhalation or droplet infection.
- Ringworm – common fungal infection in farm animals and some domestic pets. Transmitted through direct contact with the animal.
- Salmonellosis – found in a range of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. Transmitted through hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects.
- Verocytotoxin (E.coli) – found in ruminants (cattle and sheep), wild birds and pets. Transmitted by hand to mouth contact with faeces or contaminated objects.