Sometimes I think that working at a zoo was pretty good preparation for parenthood. Not that anything can truly prepare you for the enormity of the responsibility, the love that you'll have for your kidlets, or the pure exhaustion of being "on" for the rest of your life. But I think zoo work came pretty close.
10. Hosing, shoveling, and scraping feces out of exhibits have pretty much rendered me immune to a dirty diaper.
9. I came into parenthood having witnessed the worst possible behavior of children. Wanna see kids at their worst? Go to the zoo, around 2pm. I harbored very few fantasies that parenthood was going to be all sharing dripless ice cream cones and skipping home hand-in-hand while strangers complimented my child's manners and spotless clothing. I saw the ugly red-faced crying over not getting a lollypop bigger than one's head, the knocked-down little sibling who was blocking the view of the belugas, the children with cotton candy inexplicably woven into their ponytails, the random abandoned single shoes kicked off by children in strollers, multiple parents carrying their offspring out of the park like tantrum-ing footballs.
8. It was physically demanding. I can't explain how physical parenthood is, but zoo work runs a close second. There are always buckets to lift, barrels to haul, aquaria that require you to lay on your stomach on a rickety board while you scrub the front window. Much like now there is always a toddler to lift, diaper bags to haul, and dropped puzzle pieces that require you to search on hands, knees, and stomach while you shove a broom handle under a piece of furniture.
7. Food prep stretches on into infinity. Now I only have Hubby, Nugget, and Doggie to feed, but I feel like I'm I'm trapped in a Mobius loop of food preparation, serving, and cleaning. If only they were as simple to feed as the manatees. We would just fling a whole crate of lettuce into their pool 3 times a day. You have never seen a happier animal than a manatee devouring a head of romaine.
6. The critters in your care don't appreciate your labor. Sometimes, we'd dive in the manatee pool to "plant" the lettuce heads into slit PVC pipes built into the rock walls. This is enrichment, meant to encourage the manatees to forage for food along the bottom, a behavior they'd do in their natural habitat. We'd spend about an hour putting the lettuce in, then they'd come along and pop the heads out like they found the whole process annoying. A little like the way the Nugget heaves a sigh when I bring him his PB&J and disassembles it immediately. I think he'd prefer it if I gave up the sham and just served him a spoonful of peanut butter, a spoonful of jam, and a slice of bread.
5. It was engrained into my mind to always secure the exits before leaving an animal area.
4. Lost children happen, no matter how carefully you watch them, or how good a parent you are. I am already starting to teach the Nugget how to find a person in uniform, and he knows our first names. I try to dress him in bright colors or patterns whenever we go into a crowded place. Also, lost children are usually terrified and want to be hugged (not screamed at by a frantic parent) upon reunion.
3. When you love what you're doing, deep in your gut, the grunt work, the exhaustion, and the low pay don't matter a bit.
2. Children see the world through different eyes. I heard so many parents at the zoo complaining that their kid got more excited over the squirrels and ducks visiting the zoo than the exotic species. Or I'd see parents hell-bent on hitting every attraction (getting their money's worth) while their children struggled behind, tired, teary, and overwhelmed. I could never say it of course, but after witnessing this day in and day out, I wanted to shout at some of them, "Get some ice cream and sit down together in front of your child's favorite thing." Maybe it's the sharks. Maybe it's the pigeon. Maybe it's the Nugget's favorite, the paper towel dispenser or the windmill. But that visual reminds me all the time to slow down and try to see what the kids see. If you can't get past the lost dollars, get the membership so you can spend a whole afternoon gawking at a squirrel without feeling like you're missing out.
1. No matter how much love you poured into caring for the animals and educating the public, many naysayers would verbally attack you for "doing it wrong". Now instead of strangers telling me that they think the wolves look too skinny or the elephants should have more space, I have strangers telling me that I should have potty-trained my son by now, that I should have him enrolled in underwater basket-weaving lessons, or that he should be wearing a hat when it's 50 degrees outside. My zoo training taught me well - smile and acknowledge the comment, but know in your heart that you are giving your munchkin the best life you can.