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Appreciating big cats … from a distance

Beautiful. Majestic. Awe-inspiring. Being a Carnivore Keeper is an amazing job with so many amazing moments, moments that we love to share with you, our guests, as well as enjoy behind-the-scenes with the animals. However, it is also a job where the element of the innate danger of working with large carnivores, especially big cats, is always in the forefront of our minds. When caring for these animals, we never forget that they are not “tame,” nor “pets.” We regularly get questions from guests asking us if we ever go in with the big cats or if they like to be petted, so I thought I would take this opportunity to answer that question for our broader audience.

The answer is no. We do not ever go into an enclosure with any of our cats, and we do not pet them. We want them to be able to display their natural behaviors, and we respect their territory and their instincts and know that they are natural predators. The only time we would ever enter an enclosure with a big cat is once they have been anesthetized by our Veterinary Team and deemed fully sedated so that a procedure can proceed.

One of the amazing things about the science of teaching and learning, otherwise known as training, is that through positive reinforcement and trust, we can train the cats to participate in their own care in a protected contact environment. “Protected contact” is the term we use to explain that there is always a protective barrier between us and the animal. Prior to COVID, you may have seen us training the tigers at our training panel in the front of the habitat. This is protected contact training. While the mesh is large enough to get the food reinforcement through, the keepers never cross the barrier with fingers or hands. Through building this trust and having a high history of reinforcement, our big cats are trained to voluntarily present different parts of their bodies flush to the wall or gate to receive injections, blood pressure, blood draws, and even ultrasounds, all the while keeping the keeper safe behind a barrier.

We absolutely love the big cats who call Zoo Atlanta home and we revel in watching them display their might, power, and skill. All from a safe distance.  

(photo: Shauna D.)

Jenny E.
Lead Keeper, Carnivores

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl