My Experience as a Zookeeper in Rehab [Student Blog]

Before starting an externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, my background was in zookeeping. I didn't know what to expect out of rehabilitation work. As it turns out, zookeeping and rehabbing are more different than I used to think possible. But they're also similar in ways I hadn't even thought to consider.

  1. The primary care of animals is pretty much the same everywhere. All animals need fresh water every day. We spend an extensive amount of time preparing species-specific diets. Every day, we must see and pick up after each animal. In addition, we must provide enrichment; all animals get bored.
    But, zoo animals should be comfortable in captivity, while rehabbers prepare animals for release. Any animal too afraid of people will be very stressed in captivity. However, an animal too comfortable around people cannot be released. So, zookeepers and rehabbers have different goals for their animals.
  2. Both zoos and rehabbers have a distinct focus on conservation. The idea is to do work that will benefit the animals and species that we interact with. This includes educating the public about the issues surrounding animals and animal care.
    But, as a zookeeper, I had much more interaction with public education than I did as a rehab extern. As a keeper, I gave talks a couple of times a week and interacted with guests many times a day. It was part of my job to be a vocal animal activist to our guests. As a student, my duty was to take care of animals. I had very little interaction with the public. My conservation work was to rehab and release animals, rather than to educate. That part is our outreach team, instead.
  3. Both zookeepers and rehabbers need to understand the natural history of the animals in their care. Natural history includes all the important things about how animals live. Understanding these things is vital to providing quality care to any animal.
    But the types of animals we care for are very different. While I have seen animals like foxes and raccoons in zoos, they tend to focus more on exotic wildlife. Often the idea behind a zoo is to expose people to wildlife they would never see otherwise. The Wildlife Center and other rehabbers work only with native wildlife.
  4. Animal care requires excellent observation skills. This is true both for our safety and the safety of the animals. Animals can be unpredictable, so we have to be paying attention to what they are doing at all times. Also, animals communicate differently than we do. It's our job as caregivers to notice any patterns or changes in the animals' behaviors.
    But, the relationships we build with animals are VERY different between zookeepers and rehabbers. In a zoo setting, two-way connections form between animals and their keepers/trainers. We want our animals to trust us because it makes them happier and healthier in captivity. In rehab work, any relationships with the animals are entirely unhelpful. We may love an animal, but we do not want any of our animals to like or trust us in return. As stated before, an animal that trusts people cannot be released.
  5.  Both zookeepers and rehabbers need to follow veterinary instructions carefully. Veterinary care is critical to providing excellent care for wildlife. So both rehabbers and zookeepers must learn to provide some basic medical care.
    But, the type of care our animals need is often different. In zoo work, we are providing preventative care in hopes that our animals won't develop any health concerns in the first place. Rehabbers care for animals that come to us with some sort of condition, and so must provide emergency care.

When I came to wildlife rehabilitation from my zookeeping background, I knew there would be similarities & differences in the work. I didn't know yet what they would be. Now, as the end of my externship nears, I have a clearer picture not only of rehabilitation but of both types of work.

WCV Class of 2018

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