"Animals Escape Pretty Frequently" And 32 Other Absolutely Wild Behind-The-Scenes Secrets About Zoos

    "If an animal dies of natural causes, we sometimes feed them out to other animals."

    Recently, Reddit user ethicalrevenge asked, "Zoo keepers of Reddit: what are zoo secrets that people wouldn’t believe?" and there were some pretty wild behind-the-scenes facts about zoos and aquariums. Here are some of the most memorable.*

    *Along with some responses from this old Reddit thread.

    1. "A lot of the smaller monkey species are former lab animals that were controls or simply behavior studies. Zoos try to take as many as they can comfortably fit, but any left that don't find a zoo home are usually euthanized. If a zoo is near large research universities, the chances that they are from labs is higher."


    2. "When an animal needs to be put down, the keepers often bring in human junk food for them to eat the day of. Turns out gorillas really like Twizzlers."


    A pack of Twizzlers Strawberry Twists lies atop scattered individual candies

    3. "If an animal dies of natural causes, we sometimes feed them out to other animals. Had a zebra pass, and we fed out to our lions. A local farmer had a calf that was kicked in the head by its mom, and we fed the whole carcass out to our African wild dogs. Both times were during public visiting hours, so I guess it's not necessarily a secret — just not well-known."


    4. In fact... "Sometimes if there is an excess of a certain breed of animal, let’s say giraffes, that none of the other nearby zoos can take in, they will be given to carnivorous animals in the zoo, such a lions, tigers, etc. (At least in Europe.)"


    "Providing additional context here: Accredited zoos in the United States often use birth control to keep population levels controlled as euthanizing an otherwise healthy 'surplus' animal is considered inhumane."


    5. "We recycle parts of our animals that die. We preserve the bones, hides, claws, etc. and use them as teaching aids for the education department. So if your favorite zoo animal dies, there is a good chance that we still have all or part of him behind the scenes in the education department. It's a bit creepy, but it is invaluable in reaching and connecting with people and teaching them about conservation."


    6. "I used to work at a natural history museum next to a zoo. Often when an animal was euthanized, it would be donated to us. My colleagues once took a giraffe apart with a chainsaw, put the parts in the bed of someone’s personal pickup, and drove it over. From there the animal was taken apart, and the meat and organs were separated from the skeleton. Then a colony of dermestid beetles would remove the remaining flesh from the skeleton. There were eight colonies, and it took about a year for them to clean a large skeleton like a giraffe's. Then the bones and hide and other salvaged parts were preserved in the museum's collection. During my tenure, I saw a lion, a gorilla, a giraffe, and more monkeys than I could count."


    Giraffe skeleton on display inside a museum with arched ceilings and ornate columns

    7. "I worked at a zoo in college. We had a petting zoo, and the intractable/mean guinea pigs there? Snake food."

    "Speaking of snakes, they were only fed dead/frozen prey, but we’d put the prey on a long metal hook and wiggle it around to entice the snakes to grab it."


    8. "Zoo volunteer — animals escape pretty frequently, but usually, it's no big deal. Unless it's poisonous, deadly, or a bull elephant."


    "All of the animals were in one of three categories in case of (animal) escape.

    1. Low (birds of prey, for example): Notify staff, try and catch the animal.

    2. Medium (monkeys, for example): Some risk to people — clear the area to catch/tranquilize animal.

    3. High (big cats): Shoot animal to kill because the risk to people is too high."


    9. "A lot of the safety fences are based on guesses and have changed dramatically over the years. Zoos keep careful track of how far animals can jump and then adjust their fences based on what other zoos see. When one annoyed tiger jumps across a 33-ft. moat or over a 16-ft. fence, everyone adjusts things."

    "The staff also need to keep the people from attacking the animals. If an animal attacks a person, it's almost guaranteed that the person was taunting the animal, which means the zoo wasn't doing its job to keep the animals safe."


    "Past a certain point, the fences are more to keep people away from the animals than the other way around. You'd be surprised how often idiots jump fences."


    fence being redone at San Francisco Zoo after tiger attack

    10. "Chimps masturbate with their feet. A lot."


    "I saw one stick a stalk of hay up its own ass while masturbating in front of a class of kindergarten children. Two exhibits away from the chimp house the children got to witness giant tortoises having sex. The males are quite vocal when they get after it. The children had many questions."


    11. In fact... "There is a lot of masturbation in the animal kingdom. Also, manatees are disgusting, horny, poop-eating machines."


    12. Speaking of petting zoos — "Where I live, in the US Midwest, the baby goats (that are bottle fed by young guests) are sold to the local butcher shops."


    A goat standing on hay interacts with a mounted coin-operated feed dispenser labeled "Do Not Feed the Horse, Pigs or Donkey."

    13. "Many 'vegetarian' animals are also fed a small amount of meat. Because in the wild the plants, vegetables, and fruits they eat often have bugs in them that they also eat. It's not really a secret, and if you ask a keeper about an animal's diet, they'll tell you, but many people have this notion of herbivores only eat plants and carnivores only eat meat. The reality is there are very few pure herbivores or carnivores in the wild. One of the first things many predators eat from a large prey animal is the stomach and large intestines to get that partly digested plant matter."


    14. "My girlfriend used to work for the Nashville Zoo. She said that there at least, the animals have different stage names that the public know them by than the keepers use for them."


    "Sometimes, zoos auction off the right to name an animal to raise money, which makes sense from a fundraising perspective, but sometimes rich people choose awful names and/or the animal already had an unofficial name behind the scenes which the keepers keep using."


    15. "I volunteer at an aquarium, and the people always ask about whether the sharks that are in with the fish ever eat the fish. Officially we say, 'We keep them well fed enough that they don’t,' but on more than one morning on my initial walk-around, I have found remains of fish that definitely weren’t feed fish. On a particularly memorable occasion, I found the head of a large porgy just sitting on the bottom. A diver went in and got it before guests arrived."


    "The Vancouver Aquarium for a while had a problem with crabs being eaten in a tank where they were in there alone.

    Turns out, at night, the Pacific Giant Octopus from two tanks down would slither out of its tank, go across the intervening tank, and snack on a crab or two, then return to its own tank."


    Shark swimming in an aquarium with other fish, viewed through glass

    16. "I've worked at the Dallas Zoo for years. The different monkeys will aim and pee on you if you stay near them long enough. Same with the rhino, but we don't have him anymore."


    Relatedly — "Our male lion occasionally likes to piss on behind-the-scenes visitors."


    17. "Sometimes our animals get 'accidental enrichment' courtesy of idiot ducks/gophers/mice, etc. that get into the larger animals' pens. We had a group of otters take down a mallard that landed in their enclosure. Also, our jaguar cubs had a grand ol' time with a gopher that burrowed into their enclosure. The gopher didn't have a very good time at all."


    18. "We feed the big cats on failed race horses. We have to buy the horses at live horse auction. We compete against the dog food companies in buying the horse as they are the broken horses. However, we can't feed the horse straight to the lion as horse racers drug the shit out of their horses with unknown drugs. They claim it's a clean industry, but it's not. So horses need to be able to hobble around a paddock for six months or so before we feed them to the lions."


    "My BFF's son has worked in the zoo industry, and at his first job, twice a week, he had to go to the local train station to pick up frozen horse meat for the zoo animals. It was processed at a facility in Nebraska that slaughters horses for the zoo and animal testing industries."


    "I worked on a ranch that was a short drive from a big cat sanctuary. The sanctuary and the ranch had an agreement that if any horses died or were too injured/infirmed to keep around, they got them for cat meat."


    Horse racing event showing jockeys on horses mid-race on a dirt track

    19. "There are a TON more animals behind the scenes. Often these are rescues and the zoo doesn't have the space to make a proper habitat with viewing platform. There are also older animals that need quiet."


    20. And... "Sometimes the reason why animals aren't in their exhibits is because they're bastards and had to be removed from the main exhibit."

    "We had a stellar sea lion — one of the most endangered marine mammal species on the planet — breeding colony. But we couldn't let our male in with his females because at the apex of the breeding season, this fucker killed one of them and then grievously injured another. So he lived out back, alone, because he was an asshole."


    21. "Sea turtles are lazy, mean assholes. I worked at a marine center for a while with turtles. When feeding them, if you didn't put the food directly in their mouth at an angle where it slid down their throats for them, they would let it drop and then be upset about it. You would have to skim it out of the tank and keep trying. I would have to dive down to clean the 190,000-gallon tank, and the turtle in there would bite my ass. He was the only species of carnivorous sea turtle with a crushing jaw so his bite would HURT."

    "We did turtle rehab, and those lived in tanks out back. They were like big dough boy pools that had to be drained, scrubbed, and refilled, all without removing the turtle. This one turtle would wait until there were only a few inches of water, then float over and get suctioned down to the drain so I couldn't push the poopy water out and thus couldn't refill the tank. This is a 150-lb. turtle that I can't move alone. I'm in knee-high waders, sweating my ass off in 100-degree heat with 95% humidity, and this turtle is eyeballing me knowing I couldn't do a damn thing about it."


    Person interacts gently with a sea turtle in water

    22. "In the case of most large zoos (including specifically the San Diego Zoo, and Wild Safari Park which is like a sister zoo), the money spent on maintaining and curating the plant life is many multiples more than the money spent on maintaining and curating animals. The staff to maintain the plant life is many multiples larger than the staff for animals, too."


    23. "Not a zoo but a large public aquarium. The animals are fed the same restaurant quality seafood you eat. Sea otters are extremely expensive to keep for this reason. So are sharks, dolphins, beluga whales. And anything tropical and saltwater."


    "I also worked in husbandry for a large public aquarium. At ours the mammals got seafood to higher standards than most restaurants. Cloudy or missing eye = nope. The fish-keepers got it. We all had to stand around outside the cold room and wait until the mammal keepers had their pick. I never want to gut and de-pen a squid again. I even have a hard time eating calamari now."


    24. "When animals die, the zoo will try and replace them with lookalikes if possible, still keeping their name."


    hillary tries to give Nicky back his rabbit Harry on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" but it's clearly not the same rabbit

    25. "Many of the animals may be on some form of birth control. In the case of great apes, it's probably the same one most humans take."


    26. In fact, many meds and treatments are virtually the same for humans and animals.

    "I’m not a zookeeper but am a medicinal chemist. When new drugs are developed and do the thing we want it to do — e.g. block an enzyme — we have to do animal trials before giving it to a human.

    Many people dislike this practice due to the morality of it, but the forgotten benefit is that while many drugs fail human trials, they pass animal trials. Many veterinary medicines are ones that are either the exact same ones a human takes (and we only know this from the trials), or one that was intended for humans but caused a side effect in humans not observed in other species."


    "I worked at a vet clinic for a while, and we use almost all the same basic antibiotics, a lot of the same basic anxiety/depression meds, some of the same painkillers, diabetes meds (literally the same major brand of wearable glucose monitors as humans, and insulin is insulin), and kidney stuff."


    27. And sometimes doctors for humans are brought in to help animals: "It happens all the time with all sorts of animals. Dentists, cardiologists, ENTs, there was even a human urologist that had multiple successes reversing vasectomies in non-human primates."


    28. Many of the "cute" animals are not very nice — and they smell.

    "My Dad used to work in the carnivore section in Edinburgh Zoo. As it turns out, red pandas are vicious."


    "Otters are mean as fuck, especially females. They will try to bite you when you go into their habitat."


    "A fight will break out between the chimps most days. They're fucking vicious!"


    "I worked at a 'dolphinarium' one summer, caring for the resident five bottlenose dolphins. One of the adolescent males was a huge asshole. Any opportunity to launch a yoga ball three feet in diameter at your head at 15mph — he'd do it. And then he'd dash away slapping the service of the pool with his fluke like a nuke'd gone off, to retrieve more toys to try and disfigure you, while leaving you cursing at him for a moment and then running full speed for cover when you noticed he'd just surfaced with another toy to aim at you."


    "Seals smell awful, and the smell is extremely pungent and settles into your clothes and your hair. You smell like seals for days. Every day after a shift, I felt like I had to go home and burn my clothes.

    Although cute, don't forget that these little guys are wild animals, and them fuckers can BITE. Not a day didn't go by that I at least narrowly avoided getting chomped on. One of my coworkers actually had to go to the hospital because her joints swelled with fluid after one bite. I got bites on my hand, arm, and another colleague of mine even got one dangerously close to the lady parts. In all honesty, it was kind of scary. The fact that there was a high chance of them biting you didn't mean you weren't expected to still stick your hand in and swab their wounds, or give them fluids, or tube feed them. When I first started, I was being too hesitant and taking too long, and my coworker actually said to me, 'You can't be scared of them. You have to just do it. If they bite you, it doesn't hurt that bad...' She was wrong, it fucking hurts."


    "Every animal smells really funky because all they do is roll around in their shit. I remember my first time going into a lion cage. I had to put on hospital scrubs and a mask on. The guy in charge told us it's for quarantine purposes and because they stank like hell. Right before we exited, he made us take off our masks. Fun chap."


    In particular... "Penguins smell awful."


    And... "Penguins are so goddamn stabby with their faces."


    Penguin standing with peers, one looking up, in a rocky enclosure captioned "stinky and mean"

    29. "I was a zookeeper in college. Zoos don't want you to know about the horrible pest problem. They have to poison rats all the time because people drop so much food at the zoo. And those cute little bunnies you see in the grassy areas? Yep, they get poisoned, too."

    "Early one morning, my work buddy saw a rat twitching and dying next to the foot of what he thought was another zookeeper who had her back turned. Of course, it was actually a zoo guest. He ran up and stomped the rat to death to put it out of its misery just as the guest turned around to look. Hella awk."


    "There are roaches and rats everywhere...likely from all the extra food left over each night."


    "Didn't get the job, but when I interviewed for a vet tech position, I was asked how I felt about euthanasia of wild interlopers. Since rabies is a huge problem, they had to put down any/all raccoons and foxes that snuck into exhibits. If one of the zoo animals was exposed, they'd have to know."


    30. "I've been working in zoos/aquariums for about five years. ... More animals than you realize are there because they have nowhere else to be. Mistreated and former circus animals, illegal exotic pet confiscation, former lab control animals, nuisance wildlife animals. ... Others are born in captivity, generally in other zoos, so we don't take anymore out of the wild."

    "Zoos are really important to connecting the public to animals they wouldn't normally see and teaching them about the environment. Zoos that are regulated by national organizations have very strict care rules. In America we have the AZA — any organization not accredited by them does not fulfill standard care needed for their animals. Keepers make shit money and generally have to have years of unpaid experience to even get the position in the first place. The only reason that they work in this field is because they really care about these animals. Zoos are in a current movement to really rethink the mental welfare of animals. Most organizations work to give lots of mental stimulation by adding enrichment — items to help stimulate natural behaviors and keep animals physically and mentally healthy. Some zoos are honestly still behind on this, but many are in the forefront of animal behavior and wellbeing studies and working to make a difference."


    31. "Not a zoo but I worked at a prominent aquarium for a bit, and these are a few things I learned. ... Fish (specifically marine) don't understand confined space and will kill/injure themselves either from jumping the exhibit or, for the faster ones, running into the glass at high speeds."

    "The aquarium I worked at disposed of dead fish by making sure they ended up in a landfill. They didn't sell them at market or feed them to other animals.

    Most people commonly overlook what the aquarists/keepers work really hard on or take pride in. Sure, the general public may think the local colorful fish species is amazing and deserves all the attention, but the algae behind that fish is of a species that's never done well in aquariums before and has never been displayed in this area.

    Finally, when you work at an aquarium in front of the public, you are on display as much as the animals are, and people make a lot of assumptions about what we can and can't do. No, I can't retrieve that plastic water bottle you just dropped into the ocean right now. I know it's trash and that it could harm wildlife. ... I just have a safety position right now watching over two of my coworkers who are in the water, and I can't and won't abandon my position."


    Two-panel image with top showing a person shouting "WALL!" and bottom depicting breaking glass with text "(Glass breaks)"

    32. "Zookeeping is 90% cleaning. You will spend most of your time picking up shit or cleaning windows. Depending on the zoo, you may never get to do things like hand-rearing orphaned animals — the bosses tend to claim 'fun' things like that for themselves. You're just there for day-to-day maintenance. It is very hard work, physically speaking, and pays poorly. You're outdoors in all seasons and weathers. You rarely get weekends off, or even two days in a row. No time off at Christmas or other holidays. You really have to be committed!"


    "Zookeepers frequently make less than $25 per hour, and zoo interns aren't paid, and it's competitive, disgusting, thankless work. I interviewed for an admin job at a top five zoo and was shocked the job I was interviewing for paid more than most zookeeper jobs that were posted. I didn't even get the job I interviewed for, but talked to a zookeeper-turned-nurse-to-humans in depth later, and she just spilled the beans about how thankless/underfunded of a field it is. I encourage every young person I meet who's interested in zoology to research it heavily because its not a job for those who want money or prestige or to smell good, ever."


    "The thing I think people wouldn’t believe is how much manual labor we do. The giraffes need new sand in their stalls? Looks like four women with college degrees are gonna haul in 10 tons of sand in 50-lb. bag increments over the course of two days."


    33. And finally... "[Zookeepers] LOVE our animals. Zoos these days are really trying to create this distance between humans and animals — emphasizing that these animals aren't pets and downplaying the emotional connection with them. This is because of the criticism that zoos are cruel. In order to battle this, zoos make the animals sound like research subjects, and that it's not cruel to have them in captivity because of the necessity to save their species. (That part is actually true, that having animals in captivity is necessary, because we'll need to help populate all the species we're driving to extinction.)"

    "But anyways, to us keepers, those animals are our lives. We call them by their name, even if they don't officially have a name (some zoos try not to give the animals official names in order to seem more scientific). We love to pet them, hold them, cuddle them. We talk about them like they're our children. If you get a group of zookeepers together, we will gab about our animals just like old ladies at the nursing home talk about their grandbabies."


    Anyone else who has worked at a zoo, aquarium, or in any other capacity with wild or "exotic" animals — what are the other secrets most people don't know? What's the wildest thing you saw or heard about? Let us know in the comments below and you could be featured in an upcoming BuzzFeed Community post!

    Submissions have been edited for length/clarity.