Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FAQ - What is Body Language?

To me, body language is fascinating. It’s a wonderful device God has given creatures to help them understand each other.  Every animal on the planet understands the danger signal when a rattlesnake rattles its tail.
Savannah Monitor Photo
Courtesy of Brockett's Film Fauna, Inc.
As a zookeeper, you really need to understand the animals you are dealing with.  You must understand the warning signs when an animal is frightened as opposed to when it is angry. That will affect how you approach it and how you deal with its issues. This is important because you must consider not only your safety, but the safety of every creature in your care.

An angry goose can inflict a painful bite with its beak or practically cripple you with a blow from its powerful wings. Even if you pick it up by the scruff of the neck, a frightened rabbit can bring its powerful hind legs up behind its head and inflict serious gashes on your arms.  I was surprised to learn the hard way that rabbits are not the weak, defenseless little creatures you might think.  They have long sharp claws on their hind legs that can really lay a hurt on you.  Ironically, most of the scars on my arms were inflicted by rabbits!

As a zookeeper, you must understand the needs of your critters. You must be able to read their body language and interpret what they are thinking. This comes with experience. 

For example, if an animal flattens his ears against his and drops his head, that’s often a sign of aggression.  But what about an animal without ears?  What does, for example a chicken do?  A chicken will raise her hackles, the feathers around her neck. It’s usually followed with a special warning sound. A goose will stretch it’s neck, drop its head, and hiss.  Often, poultry will also open their wings a bit to make themselves look larger.

Some animals will freeze, trying to become invisible. Some animals will puff up, raising hair, scales, or feathers to make themselves look bigger. 

You need to understand what the animal is doing and why.  Is it friendly or angry or frightened?  You must study it’s entire posture to make sure.  For example a dog may pull his ears back, but whether or not he’s wagging his tail or whether or not his head is held high or low will tell you whether he is giving a warning or inviting a pet.

One of my funniest examples of body language was displayed by a baby savannah monitor. It’s a carnivorous lizard from the deserts of Africa. When he was small, he lived in a ten-gallon aquarium.  I kept him in the house as a baby so I would have more time to tame him.

If I sat back and watched, he would explore his tank, eat his food, drink his water and just be a lizard.  Whenever I approached, he would bow his back a bit, raise up on his toes, rock back and forth and hiss at me. I realized that from a reptile’s point of view, if you’re big enough to catch me, you’re probably going to eat me. 

I would speak to him quietly and slowly position my hand over him.  It required quick reflexes on my part to pick him up.  Savannas, being meat eaters, have very sharp teeth and can inflict a nasty bite.  I would grasp him firmly behind the head with my forefinger and thumb and support his body with my hand when I picked him up. 

When he got older, that behavior ceased.  First, I think it was because he was big enough to defend himself (a twenty pound lizard with teeth sharp enough to kill rats can be quite formidable).

Most importantly, I think it was because he learned to trust me. Often I would pick him up and hold him to my chest and stroke him like a cat. He would sort of nestle down on me and close his eyes. It’s had to tell with lizards, but I like to think he enjoyed that.

Linda's Note:  Back in my zoo days, I didn't have a camera, so I did not get many photos of my animals.  I especially want to thank Jim and Gina Brockett for allowing me to use their photo of a Savannah Monitor.  This is an example in which a picture is truly worth a thousand words!

You may go to their website to learn more about the kinds of animals they care for.

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