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A holiday for an animal care professional

Hello everyone, Courtney here from the Gorilla Care Team wishing you and all your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season! Much like police officers, firefighters, nurses, and the many other essential workers, animal care professionals do not necessarily get holidays off this time of year. The animals need our care 24/7 all year long. The only days Zoo Atlanta is closed to the public are Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, this means that some animal care team members still must go into work and make sure the animals are cared for. I wanted to give you an idea of what a day like that looks like.

All the care team members scheduled to work that day open the building in the morning. Someone makes sure each gorilla gets fed breakfast, while another team member focuses on medications and others make sure the habitats are cleaned and ready for the animals to go outside if it is warm enough. If it is too cold for the animals to go outside, that last keeper will begin moving gorilla groups around in their indoor space. This is so we can get their rooms cleaned and filled with enrichment. All care team members make sure time is set aside for training sessions to occur to keep the gorillas sharp with their learned husbandry behaviors.

Our family group, led by Taz, shares three large rooms, while all the other silverbacks have their own individual bedrooms. This can become a bit of a puzzle for the keeper working on shifting gorillas into different rooms. It is important to remember that gorillas can be dangerous animals, and we use protected contact when caring for these guys. This means that there is always a barrier between us and them. The gorilla building is equipped with hydraulic doors and every room has at least one door leading into it. This makes it easy for us to open or close doors when asking the gorillas to move from one room to another. The gorillas shift through the rooms reliably due to positive reinforcement training. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is all voluntary for the animals; if they do not want to leave their room, they do not have to. However, they all do a great job of moving between rooms.

Once all the animals are out of their rooms, we can start cleaning. If an individual chooses not to leave their room that day, it may not get cleaned. Again, because we use positive reinforcement and make the areas they are moving to better than the area they are coming from, all our gorillas are great shifters. One interesting thing I have noticed about these animals is that some of them really do appreciate a clean room. They know the difference between a clean room and a dirty room. Cleaning takes up the bulk of the morning. Once done, it is time to move all the gorillas back to their overnight rooms. At this point, the gorillas get their favorite snack of the day, fruit! It is the smallest portion of their diet, but they sure do love their grapes and bananas. Once all the gorillas have received their fruit diet, most of the care team members are done for the day and can enjoy the holiday! At least one has to come back in the afternoon to feed everyone dinner and give out any evening medications. So, that is a holiday in the life of an animal care professional.

This is different for everyone in the field but for me, my family typically waits on me to really get the holiday started. I have been working in the animal care field for many years now, and they have gotten used to having to wait on me before we can open presents on Christmas. Much like our police officers, firefighters, or nurses, animal care professionals sacrifice a lot to take care of these animals, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope you all have enjoyed a peek into what we do on Thanksgiving and Christmas and a special thank you to all of our essential workers (especially this year). Have a wonderful holiday season!

Courtney M.
Keeper I, Primates

(photo by Hayley T.)

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