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Working with Dangerous Animals is a Risky Job but One Well Worth it, Zookeepers Say

Lee Hart Works with Elephant at Dickerson Park Zoo

Lee Hart is kind of like a preschool teacher—when he goes to work each day his “students’” behavior must be kept in check and he must make sure they stay healthy and get plenty of physical and mental stimulation.  But Hart’s “students” are much bigger than human preschoolers—Hart works with elephants as well as tigers and siamangs as a zookeeper in Tropical Asia at Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo…

(calling in elephants)

Hart loves working with the animals he encounters each day at the zoo.  It’s obvious he’s developed a level of trust with the elephants…

(commands Patience to speak)

But Hart’s job can be risky.

Elephants are the largest living land animals in the world today.  They can grow as large as 13 feet tall and weigh as much as six tons.  And tigers, with their amazing agility, large, sharp teeth and significant body size—they can reach a weight of over 600 pounds—can easily cause harm to humans.

According to Hart, elephants are extremely intelligent, and keepers constantly are thinking of ways to keep them stimulated.  That intelligence, he says, increases the danger of working with them…

"I've heard people describe them as being teenagers for life.  They're always trying to see how much they can be mischievious, and, due to the large size, it makes them extremely dangerous just for that aspect.  But, if you put yourself in a bad spot in the barn or in the yard you just potentially, you know, put yourself in harm's way."

Zookeepers, he says, must pay attention, be thorough, check locks and make sure gates are closed.  They also work with the animals, teaching them commands.  He says keepers learn to minimize the risks of working with dangerous animals…

"You need to not only be comfortable with the elephants but comfortable with yourself.  You need to be very consistent and very observant and always pay attention to where you are at when working with with animals but also their demeanor and their body language especially."

Zookeeper Jackson Thompson, Hart’s co-worker in Tropical Asia at Dickerson Park Zoo, has worked with with exotic animals for six years starting with an internship at the zoo during his last semester of college.  He says working with tigers, elephants and siamangs can be a challenge…

"Probably the biggest challenges are they can't speak back to you like humans can. You have to learn the animal.  You have to learn what they're used to and just kind of read them to know whenever there's a health issue or what their personality is at the time--if they're having a bad day, if they're having a good day.  That's probably the hardest thing and then once you get that you're pretty good."

He says, when working with tigers, zookeepers must keep not only their safety in mind but also the safety of zoo visitors…

"We have a secondary protocal that they do--it's a dangerous animal lock, and there's one lock per each dangerous animal building, and we lock each individual door so that that person that goes out into the yard has the only key to unlock that door so that they're safe and then also people can't let out to the general public."

The close proximity of keepers to elephants during husbandry means extra precautions must be taken.  The elephant barn and yards are designed with safety in mind.  Two keepers are always present anytime keepers work in what they refer to as “trunk reach areas.”  Still, Lee Hart says accidents happen…

"I have been struck, and it was one of those situations where the elephant was not in a good mood, and I had put myself in a position where I shouldn't have been.  I wasn't as mindful of my safety as I needed to be, and it was fairly early in working with the elephants, and I learned very quickly to be mindful of body position and also to really really pay attention to the demeanor of the animal."

Despite the risks, Hart loves what he does.  He earned a degree in biology with an emphasis in wildlife biology from then SMSU.  It was during an internship at Dickerson Park Zoo that Hart decided he wanted to be a zookeeper.  He started out part-time at the zoo then moved to full-time as a swing keeper—mostly working in the Missouri Habitats section.  But when a position became available in Tropical Asia, he jumped at the chance.  He can’t see himself doing anything else…

"I love working with these animals.  They're amazing.  You know, that's the biggest reward is to actually, you know, really experience just how magnificent they are--not just the elephants but the other animals I work with as well.  These are endangered species, so who knows how much longer they're gonna be around?   And just to be a part of hopefully  learning more about them or helping them out is great.

You can find this story and others in KSMU’s Sense of Community Series on our website ksmu.org.

For KSMU, I’m Michele Skalicky.