Bat guano, elephant dung, rhino pee, and other substances I encountered in my brief, smelly stint as a zookeeper.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 29 2010 10:09 AM

Poo at the Zoo

Bat guano, elephant dung, rhino pee, and other substances I encountered in my brief, smelly stint as a zookeeper.

See our Magnum Photos gallery "Ode to the Zoo." 

Click here to launch the slideshow Poo at the Zoo.

In biology class you were taught that the driving force propelling all living things is the desire to reproduce. That's wrong. After working as a zookeeper, I can assure you that living things have a far more fundamental urge, and that is to propel one's waste onto the nearest horizontal surface. I thought being a zookeeper would allow me to cuddle koalas or commune with chimpanzees. Instead I accidentally hosed myself with a mixture of bat guano and Dawn detergent, endured the olfactory assault that is rhino dung, shoveled elephant droppings the size of throw pillows, and had my spirit broken by penguin poop—sticky , viscous, fishy—the most malevolent excrement I encountered.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

In Human Guinea Pig I try jobs or hobbies people are curious about, but wish someone else would do for them. But working as a zookeeper is such an enduring desire, that zoos can always find volunteers willing to do this dirty work. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, founded in 1876, is the third-oldest zoo in the country, spread over 160 acres. I was allowed to spend two days there alongside some of the zoo's 58 animal caregivers, discharging the more basic duties, ones that make zookeeping a profession that requires one to take a long, hot shower before joining the family for dinner.

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Imagine work that offers the chance to provide nurture and stimulation to needy, even helpless beings, while requiring heavy physical labor, and a high tolerance for the bodily excretions of others. Add little opportunity for advancement and a barely living wage. Given this job description we understand why day care centers and nursing homes have a hard time finding and retaining workers. Yet one of the paradoxes of zookeeping is that if the needy beings are wild animals that can bite, gore, or dismember you, then management has the luxury of dozens, even hundreds of applicants for each spot.

In a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly, "The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work,"  business scholars J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson conclude zookeepers are modern Calvinists, viewing their work as both their destiny and duty. The researchers point out while having a sense of calling provides great fulfillment, it can also result in exploitation. It's helpful for your boss to know, as many of the zookeepers told the researchers, you would do the job for free. Given zookeepers' pay, you could practically say they do. They are highly educated—more than 80 percent have college degrees—but are among the worst-paid workers in the country, making a national average of about $27,000 a year, just $4,000 more than janitors.

Since I live with two indoor cats, an old beagle that's never quite grasped the concept of housebreaking, and a puppy that hasn't either, I viewed the janitorial aspects of zookeeping as a scaled-up version of my daily life. At 9 one morning, supervisor Kevin Barrett, 27, picked me up in a golf cart to take me to my first cleanup of the day: the bat cave. He added that he hoped I was OK with the fact that I would clean while the 200-member colony of Seba's short-tailed fruit bats were in the cave with me.

Highlights of Human Guinea Pig's Day as a Zookeeper

Bats are polarizing creatures: Humans either love or loathe them. (Luckily, I'm a bat lover.) Barrett said parents often walk toward the exhibit, then send their kids to the viewing window alone. Barrett fitted me with boots, and I put on my sun hat ("They're going to poop on you"), then he opened the door to an antechamber protected by a curtain of mesh. There were no errant bats, so I descended into the warm, moist darkness of the surprisingly realistic fiberglass and concrete cave. Barrett warned me to make my movements slow and deliberate. Even so, my arrival caused the bats to scatter. I felt them fly past me in a rush of air, wings, and fur. It was less like an introduction to animal husbandry than an outtake from True Blood.

The bats are mostly frutarians, so the cave had an almost pleasant fermented smell. Barrett threaded a hose through an opening, I grabbed it, and with a scrub brush, I methodically attacked the droppings, flushing them down the drain in the floor of the cave. Of course, I repeatedly sprayed myself, which meant I spent the rest of the day pretending guano and Dawn detergent is fabulous for the skin.

Fruit bats are prolific breeders, so to keep the zoo from being overrun, this colony is all male—a bat monastery! I didn't mind when occasionally a gentleman's echolocation failed and he banged into me, each fruit bat weighs only about an ounce. It took me almost 90 minutes to get the place scrubbed; an experienced keeper is out of there in half the time. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the bats seemed comical with their flattened, leaflike noses, hanging upside down by their feet, their dark wings folded around themselves, like tiny Draculas. I began to fantasize about having a bat for a pet—it could sleep during the day on the shower rod, then eat mosquitoes at night.

Once I finished, it was time to prepare the bat food. Their diet is a mixture of bananas, apples, a canned protein product called "ZuPreem Primate Diet" and Lubee fruit bat supplement. The fruit has to be cut just so, small enough that a bat can pick it up from the large pans suspended from the ceiling, but not so small the mixture turns to mush. When I finished I had a chunky, aromatic mixture that resembled nothing so much as bat charoset, perfect for a winged-mammal Seder.