8 Secrets Zoos Keep Under Wraps

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Few destinations conjure up as idyllic an image as an afternoon at the zoo. Strolling about on a nice day with some lighthearted animal-themed ice cream treat and checking out monkeys, bears, and a few sleeping reptiles is as wholesome as apple pie on the Fourth of July.


But certainly, some secrets must be hidden in the shadows of those cages and fake rock formations. For those who have ever wondered about what’s really going on at your local zoo behind the locked gates and after closing time, allow us to drops some zoo truths on you.

Zoo Animals Escape—A Lot

Oh sure, all the animals at the zoo are behind secure cages and super-thick plexiglass, but at the end of the day these are wild animals with natural instincts to explore, think, and escape. And escape they do, more frequently than most would expect.

One recent disappearing act came from Ollie, a bobcat at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo. The 25-pound feline fled her cage earlier this year and was on the lam for two days before being recovered on her way back to the zoo.


One zoo escape artist who lives in legend is an orangoutang at the San Diego Zoo named Ken Allen. Ken busted out so many times he was nicknamed “Hairy Houdini.” Usually, though, Ken would leave his habitat at night and wander around the zoo for a bit before heading back to his area.


And animals aren’t just experts at getting out: At the Nandankanan Zoo in India, keepers were shocked to find one morning that a wild male tiger had snuck its way into the habitat of a female tigress. Zoo officials left a gate open and the tiger eventually made its way from the habitat into the zoo’s tiger safari. It seems zoo enclosures are no match for an animal’s curiosity or their most primal instincts.

Zoos Can Make Animals Lose Their Minds

Many animals at the zoo are used to inhabiting a much larger swath of land than what even the most spacious zoos can provide. The limiting of space added with the reduction in stimuli that comes with being in that smaller space can lead to zoo animals developing stereotypic behavior, which is a repetitive behavior that serves no purpose.


If you’ve ever seen a zoo animal pacing back and forth, that could be a bout of stereotypic behavior. Zoo animals can also experience weight loss or become aggressive when feeling the effects of zoos, succumbing to what some have come to call “zoochosis.”


One of the most famous examples of an animal with zoochosis was Gus, the “bipolar” bear of New York City’s Central Park Zoo. In the mid-1990s, Gus was exhibiting stereotypic behavior and an animal psychologist diagnosed Gus with a “mild neurosis.” The zoo worked hard to help Gus with a variety of treatments, the most headline-grabbing of which was his very own Prozac prescription.

Mary Schwalm/AP (via NY Daily News)

In the wake of Gus’s episode and other issues of animal mental health, today’s zoos are focused on “enrichment” programs. The goal of these programs is to “alter behavior so that it is within the range of the animals’ normal behavior.” Enrichment can include modifying habitats so they aren’t just four flat walls, increasing animal mobility and exercise, and having animals participate in tasks that encourage learning.

Zoo Animals Sometimes Have Fake Hunts To Eat

In zoos, carnivores can have an especially rough time because these meat-eating animals are naturally built hunting machines. So, to provide enrichment for their non-vegetarians, many zoos will do their best to have the animals “hunt” for their food as much as possible.


This can be as simple as providing the carnivores with animal carcasses instead of their regular protein feed or including colorful balls in their habitat that the animals can stalk and attack (like a super-sized house cat). In some cases, zookeepers will go as far as creating cardboard recreations of the animals prey and including it in the habitat for the animals to hunt.

For anyone who thinks that zoo animals should have the right to hunt live prey like nature intended, zookeepers will be quick to point out that engaging in a real hunt can be very dangerous to the predator as well, especially if the prey fights back. No lion is going to get wounded attacking a cardboard antelope.

Only 10 Percent Of Zoos In The U.S. Are Accredited

Most people think of zoos as the big city, state-of-the-art structures that bend over backwards to make sure they have the best animal care they can afford. But in the U.S., there are still many zoos that are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as animal exhibitors but do not meet the strict standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Susan Walsh/AP (via Washington Post)

In fact, only 10 percent of animal exhibitors in the U.S. have accreditation from the AZA. And according to the Humane Society of the United States, “Even some AZA-accredited zoos contain forgotten and outdated exhibits. These inadequate displays are often obscured by the multimillion-dollar exhibits that tend to focus on the more glamorous species and habitats.”

Penguins Smell Awful

This is one fact that zoos definitely don’t advertise: Its adorable tuxedoed arctic birds are among the worst-smelling creatures of the animal kingdom. The unpleasant odor all comes from the penguin’s waste, also known as their guano. Villages from around the world who deal with wild penguins are all too familiar with the stink that the roaming black-and-white birds can raise.


And zoos are far from odorless—when the Detroit Zoo opened a new $30 million penguin exhibit, a local journalist pointed out that there’s no longer the “unpleasant smell” that guest would encounter in the old penguin exhibit.

Sometimes Zoos Will Eliminate Perfectly Healthy Animals

A very unfortunate part of zoos for years has been the practice of sometimes ending the lives of animals simply because the zoo no longer has room for them. This has been called “zoothanasia”—when zoo officials eliminate an animal for reasons other than to provide relief because the animal is suffering or has an illness.


The case of a giraffe named Marius at a zoo in Copenhagen who was “zoothanized” made headlines around the world and brought this cruel practice to the attention of many. The harsh spotlight on this most shadowy of zoo policies has led to increased outrage among those who want these poorly justified eradications to stop.

Animals In Zoos Live Longer

While there is much to question about how zoos handle their animal populations, there are some recent studies that give zoos credit for helping their animals to live longer and healthier lives. The attention of zoo professionals and veterinarians have allowed animals to reach ages almost never attained in the wild.

Zoos shifting their focus from merely breeding animals to providing them with healthcare and increasing their quality of life has allowed more creatures to reach their golden years. These older animals develop some “old age” issues—like arthritis or diabetes—which zoo vets are also able to treat to extend the lives of their animals.


One example concerns an older elephant at the National Zoo named Ambika who was suffering from a tumor. A team of zoo staff and scientists were able to come up with a non-surgical plan of vaccines that saved Ambika’s life.

Zookeepers Are In It For the Love of the Job and The Animals They Work With

Many zoo secrets can put zookeepers in an unfavorable light and could lead some to suggest that they’re simply in it to profit off of the exhibition of these animals. But the facts prove that to be at least partially false—nobody is working with zoo animals for the money.

Becoming a professional zookeeper is one of the most competitive jobs one can seek in this country. Thousands of applicants submit for zookeeper positions whenever they become available and only a fraction will end up getting hired. However, despite the profession’s popularity, these positions are not paid well. At all.

Perth Zoo

Various job sites put the average zookeeper’s salary at less than $30,000 a year. And keep in mind zoos nearly always require a college degree in some kind of biology or animal field. Zoo veterinarians can expect a higher salary, closer to the tune of $87,000, but that, of course, requires attending Veterinary Medicine post-graduate school.

All in all, zookeepers spend their days in unflattering khaki shorts handling all matter of animal grossness and get very little compensation for their effort. While it’s clear that zoos aren’t perfect, there’s also little doubt that the people who work at the zoo are there because they love spending every day with the amazing animals of our planet.

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