I had to wait a few weeks to write this post. I was afraid it would come out wrong if I wrote it any sooner.
We've lost a couple of high-profile ("charismatic," in industry terms) animals at my work this year. Both losses were very sudden. When I worked at an aquarium, we lost a high-profile animal very suddenly there, too. So I'm no stranger to the backlash losing these animals comes with. But it's still frustrating to deal with the misguided anger out there.
The problem is, people do get mad when an animal they love dies in a zoo. People feel like it was their animal. How dare we let something happen to their animal! They would never let anything bad happen to them!
What they fail to remember is that we feel exactly the same way.
Those tears falling down your face? They were falling down ours, too, an hour ago. But we still have the other animals to take care of today, so we put on a brave face and go do our job. The sadness you feel inside? It's pouring out of every muscle we have into our work. It's all we can do to deal with it, because we don't want to risk letting it distract us and skip a feeding or mess up somewhere else.
As for not letting anything happen to them, well-- trust me. No one who works in a zoo, taking care of animals, EVER wants anything bad to happen to them. EVER. We wouldn't be here if we did. Zoos are guaranteed to be full of people who are passionate about what they do. People who love those animals just as much as you do, and, dare I say, more. We get to work with them every day. They know our faces, our voices, our quirks, just like we know theirs. When they leave us, they leave a hole shaped just like them that won't ever quite be filled with another.
If we could have avoided what happened, we would have. But we work with wild animals. We do the best we can, but none of us can predict the future, and while we always try to learn from tragedy, it's not always something we could have prevented, or even stopped from happening.
So when you come to a zoo shortly after an animal dies, and you ask an employee what happened, don't be angry. Respect them when they tell you the same short answer that you've heard from everyone else-- it's nothing personal. We don't know you. We don't want to talk about it at length four, forty, or four hundred times today. Sometimes, that short answer really is all the information we have. Sometimes, we just can't say anymore or we risk cracking the shell we've put over our own sadness.
If you read this, and learn from it, thank you.