Some animals have a narrow body space, some animals have a wide body space. It’s kind of like a safety zone. In other words, if an animal is a prey animal (food for other animals) it has a very wide body space. Predators often have a narrow body space. But it really depends on the situation. The bigger the threat you are to the animal, the bigger its body space.
As a zookeeper, you need to understand the body space and the nature of every species in your care. You must also build up a trust relationship with every animal. You must never threaten them or make them fearful, but respect their space. This takes a bit of talent and a lot of understanding.
Along with body space, eye contact is crucial. To most animals, a direct stare is extremely threatening. If you are a prey animal, just having someone stare at you can make you nervous. In other words, if you are being stared at, you are being stalked. If you are being stalked, someone is considering killing and eating you. For most animals, that’s what life is all about, eating or being eaten.
I’ll give you an example. We purchased a small flock of pygmy goats. Unlike my first two who were very tame pets, these goats had been used merely as bush goats, to keep a field mowed. They had not been handled, petted or tamed. Then suddenly, they had been brought to our farm and thrust into a strange pen. it was nothing at all like their home.
For days they fled when I approached and would bawl and trample each other to get away from me as I raked their pen. They spent their time huddled in a corner. I knew this had to change, and quickly before they injured themselves. I used food as an incentive. They got a small ration of hay, not enough to starve them, but I wanted them hungry.
Now, I happen to know that a goat’s most favorite food in the world is sweet feed. It is an assortment of grains soaked in molasses. Several times a day I would enter their pen with a small bucket of sweet feed. As usual, they would bawl and flee. At first I would squat down, making myself smaller and talking in a quiet voice. I would rattle the can. They would stop bawling and stare at me, ready to bolt at the slightest wrong move.
Carefully, I would lay belly down, reducing the threat even more. Throughout this process, I would not look at them (staring is a threat). I would peek from the corner of my eye. Before long they would relax a bit. At that time their body space was a good thirty feet wide. Slowly, I would take a handful of sweet feed and open it in my flattened palm. I would reach out as far as my arm would go. Before long, the enticement of sweet feed, coupled with my very non-threatening body language would allow them to relax a bit more. A few of the goats would begin to approach. Some would dart past me to another part of the pen. I did not flinch or move, just hold still and keep up a soft monotone of speech.
After several days of this procedure, one little goat, more bold than the rest, couldn’t resist the temptation. She crept closer and closer. It took her several minutes to summon the courage, but finally she snatched a mouthful of sweet feed and bolted away. That was all it took. She immediately came back and snatched another mouthful and quickly finished every bit in my hand. I knew I had won her over when she licked my fingers for every little crumb! When the others saw that she had not been eaten by the big stranger, their own desire for sweet feed overcame their fear.
Within the week every goat in the pen crowded around for their daily treat. I had established a ground rule for them. You don’t get sweet feed unless you take it from my hand. One goat who was extremely shy, took several weeks before she would finally eat from my hand.
To some, this might seem like a lot of trouble. But as a zookeeper I had to consider the needs of my critters. Through no choice of their own, they were thrust into an alien environment, full of unknown threats and dangers. They needed to become tame and trust me, not only for the sake of the zoo patrons, but for their own safety and protection. In the event of a serious injury or medical emergency, they needed to trust me enough to take care of them and heal their hurts. If they had continued to stay wild, then in their panic to escape, they could have faced more harm and injury.
If you have any questions about being a zookeeper, about my zoo Storybook Farm Petting Zoo, about animals, or about The Thwarting of Mr. Dingsnapple, please ask!