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The decency of British zoos has been called into question. It was revealed in February that a zoo in Cumbria—which has since been denied a new license—saw nearly 500 animals die in less than four years. The same zoo was fined for health and safety breaches last year over the death of 24-year-old Sarah McClay, who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger.
Obviously this is clearly a zoo with a terrible approach to animal welfare, but that doesn't mean it's the only one guilty of mistreating animals. While humans have a rich history of putting cuddly creatures in cages and paying to look at them, criticism of zoos is nothing new. In the early 1990s, zoos in the UK were in crisis, suffering a huge drop in visitor numbers because three-quarters of Britons were opposed to animals in captivity.
In the spirit of public interest and always wanting to know gross and weird stories, we spoke to people who work—or recently worked—in the UK zoo industry to find out what the public doesn't know about zoos.
I worked in a conservation zoo, where the main objective was to breed the animals and then put them back into the wild. We were really understaffed, though, so you'd be trained in tons of different things in case you had to be rushed somewhere else. They were low on money, but instead of investing in the animals or staff, the owner started spending on attractions to keep customers coming. To me, that makes no sense.
The little monkeys would always escape, and obviously when an animal escapes in a zoo, everything has to be shut down, because people will try to pet the animal and get bitten. We'd herd everyone to be locked away in rooms. One particular day, tons of monkeys escaped, and they were just running everywhere and jumping on everything, and I was trying to call on the radio and get everyone to rush up and help. The freakiest thing that ever happened was when a lion managed to get into the area where the keeper would feed it, and I remember having to stay away from there. It took forever for things to go back to normal after that.
– Sandy, 25
WATCH: An Inside Look at the Exotic Animal Trade
People don't realize that animals can be quite horny. We had a bird that basically fucked my head whenever it got the chance. There was another hand-reared bird that used to make stupid noises and always hump my shoulder and then jizz all over it. He wasn't even that big, just a savage little fucker, but because he was so tame, we could take him around with us when it was quiet. I think we all had scars on our shins from that bastard—he had nasty fits. I remember this one time he got "all excited" at the shop front desk and jizzed all over the counter. He had such a funny orgasm face—his pupils would go big and small really quickly.
Most establishments I've worked for have always had workers under the age of 18, so no one has qualifications, and yet you're looking after some of the rarest species in the world. It's all down to pay. If you have young people working, you're going to get a lot of silliness, and we were silly.
– Polly, 35
Potentially Illegal Cuteness
I was given a medium-size wild cat to take home as a baby and rear, which surely would have been against the Dangerous Wild Animals Act because you'd need a license. She could've been dangerous. She'd been swiped from her parents at a very vulnerable age—maybe seven weeks old—when she'd already bonded with them. The welfare issues of that were just terrible. It was a great experience for me as someone who works with animals but very tricky.
It's easy to remember the bad stuff, but there was so much cuteness. You'd come in in the morning, and you'd be checking on the animals, and if you knew an animal was due to give birth, one day you'd arrive and be like, "What's that?!" and then this little face would peer up at you. Baby!
– Amy, 37
My colleague told me this story a couple of years after it happened. He came in really early in the morning and was trying to steal money for the bus fare home, and he crept up to a very big bird —I won't say the breed—and shouted "raaah" at it. Birds are really prone to shock and stress. The sleeping fella's heart exploded. It dropped dead. All the animals that die need to have a postmortem so you can say the cause of death, and the postmortem was heart rupture. But then that's what you get if you hire a bunch of young kids and don't get older, more responsible people who are qualified.
Like most people in this line of work, I ended up going to college to learn more about animals and now realize how bad zoos are, really. At the time, I knew the animals were bored. I'd do things like lob a load of mealworms and crickets all over the floor to give animals something to do, which the boss wasn't too happy about it.
I think the public do care about animals, but they just fight for the wrong things. They'd say something like, "Oh, that animal's on its own—that's cruel," when actually that animal is supposed to be on it's own; if you put another one in there, they'd probably kill one another. But then they think an animal is being cute when it's actually showing signs of very stressed-out behavior.
– Jane, 38
We'd get all the dead rats, rabbits, and mice out—the ones you'd feed all the animals with—and when you pull all the mice out, they are all in little poses from how they were frozen. We made a little stage and would do puppet shows with them. We'd say, "This one looks like a ballerina. This one looks all coy."
There was a freezer of dead animals that you would sell to science-based companies or taxidermy people, and you'd get the iguanas out, and they'd be frozen in perfect ice lolly pop shape. We'd get them out and spin them on their tails.
Most owners are clueless if the zoos are privately owned, and this one I worked at was. The owner was trying to build up his species diversity, so he used to go and buy different birds. One day, he came in with this weird, rare, pink type of bird, but it wasn't actually that bird. And he put it on display as this rare type of species, but it was just a regular bird that had been spray-painted.
– Adam, 32
An Awful Place to Be
Part of the job was about keeping the animals alive, and the other part was doing enrichment strategies, which was supposed to alleviate the boredom. The trouble is no amount of enrichment can ever replicate what an animal will feel like in the wild. So you'd do feeds and open up the enclosures, and then by the time you've gone round and fed all the animals, it's time to feed again. I found there was no chance to do enrichment strategies because I was always cleaning up poo.
Working with the giraffes was awful as they were stuck in these tiny enclosures, and sometimes they don't even go out—and I remember thinking, This is absolutely horrendous. We had spider monkeys, and one of my zookeepers once had to throw visitors out because one of them had literally given the monkeys cigarettes. Another time, I saw a kid rattling a parrot's bar until it fell down. You see enclosures with loads of litter in them, and you see people mocking the animals, especially the monkeys. It's absolutely horrendous.
At any zoo you go to, you see the tigers pacing and the animals grinding their teeth and chewing the bars down. This all looks cute and normal to the average zoo visitor, but it's actually something called "stereotypy." They are the behaviors that the animals perform because they get so frustrated. Since working there, I've set up a website about animal welfare called the "Happy Orca," because I believe that zoos are fundamentally really wrong.
– Nova, 36
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Everyone's encountered a difficult person in their workplace that they've been forced to deal with whether they like it or not. These bad apples come in all shapes and sizes and tend to throw the office into disarray with their contrived outbursts, bouts of conniving, or inter-office micromanaging. In The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work, co-author Dr. Jody J. Foster explains how to deal with ding dongs at work by exploring the personality traits behind their disruptions.
"I don't think people wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to be disruptive today,'" says the clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "A lot of what causes conflicts at work is just that people have personalities, and they bring those personalities to work with them. Sometimes that doesn't meld well with the culture that they're in or perhaps the particular group they're working with, so conflicts happen."
The potential for discord is ever-present in the workplace, which can be competitive, stressful, or downright toxic. Foster has come up with a list of archetypes that by no means account for every type of person in the world, but does capture the ones she's encountered in her research on interpersonal problems. As a psychiatrist, Dr. Foster attacks the issue diagnostically, but she's not making actual diagnoses. Instead, she's looking at the various traits people bring to the table, and examining how to stop workplace beef before it starts.
"There's value in categorizing people," she says. "The fact is people with similar traits tend to act in similar ways. If you can get your arms around that, not in a punitive way to diagnose them or pigeonhole them, but just to try and get the underpinnings figured out, then you can really make an impact."
Here are the types of people she says you'll find in your office who have disruptive underpinnings and how to deal with them. Who knows, maybe you'll recognize yourself in here, too.
"This one is pretty much self explanatory," Foster says. It's also the most common type of disrupter you'll find in the workplace, according to her research. Perhaps you know the type: egocentric, self-centered. "A peacock kind of person," Foster explains. "It's all about them. My way or the highway. Takes credit for other people's work. The center of everything. Fills the room with ego."
The Narcissus is entitled, condescending, and attention seeking, and (duh) very arrogant. They also happen to be, according to Foster, one of the most difficult character types to deal with in an office, where they tend to inculcate a deeply politicized atmosphere. "The environment feels competitive instead of supportive," says Foster. "When dealing with a Narcissus, appealing to the person's egocentricity can be effective. The occasional recognition of the person's achievements, strengths, or values may go a long way in avoiding anger or demeaning comments."
The Venus Flytrap
The Flytrap draws you in, wins your trust, and then flips it on its head for his or her own nefarious purposes, according to Foster. "It's a person who cycles between overvaluing and devaluing you, sucking you in, but then can cause a lot of chaos when she flips into something much more negative," she says. "The Flytrap can cause tremendous drama in the office, the type where people feel they need to walk on eggshells around them so as to not set them off. To deal with a Fly Trap, you have to define limits and continuously reinforce them. They want to be directed. They want to learn acceptable boundaries, and structure will comfort them."
The Bean Counter
The Bean Counter is the obsessive, can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees micromanager who won't let you get your tasks done because they're always needling you with details. What's worse, they're often successful, Foster says: "Bean Counters are commonly over-promoted, because they're 'detail people' and being a detailed person can be great." Once in a leadership role, though, the Bean Counter often falters, and employees under them suffer. "They have tunnel vision and can't see the big picture," Foster adds.
To deal with a Bean Counter, avoid direct challenges or arguments concerning their detail-oriented nature. Express appreciation of their dedication to the job while emphasizing your own. Foster also advises you never promise more then you can deliver and take responsibility for mistakes. "If possible, direct their job toward detail-oriented duties with clear directions and deadlines," she says.
The Distracted or "nutty professor" type is the one who can't seem to get themselves organized, is terrible at time management, has trouble finishing tasks. "It's difficult for these individuals to pay attention or focus," says Foster, who notes that the preferred way to deal with this type is to be clear, patient, and predictable. "Encourage the Distracted not to over-commit themselves. Finish one task before starting on the next.
"Mr. Hyde is the name I gave to somebody who is bringing an addiction issue into the workplace," Foster says. "You hire Dr. Jekyll and then, all of a sudden, you see that he has flipped into somebody else." This type may be difficult to pinpoint, but there are signs. "What you have to look for is a change from how they used to be. You might see moments where they are back to their usual baseline and then they sort of slip off again. These are people who are maybe trying to self correct, stay clean during the work week or whatever, but inevitability the cycle of use causes a decrease in work function and can cause lots and lots of disruptions interpersonally in the office."
To deal with a Mr. Hyde type, Foster says, you must be assertive. "Reinforce that you are there to help. Be firm with limits and consequences. Recognize that recovery can be punctuated by setbacks."
You may notice the Lost by the dead look in his or her eyes. They've typically been very successful in their career, but as the years have passed, they've grown increasingly scattered. They make mistakes, and get belligerent when they're pointed out. "It's very difficult, particularly with somebody who is entrenched in a work place, to call out when there are problems of cognitive slippage or cognitive decline, but these issues can be extremely disruptive to the workplace," says Foster, who suggests having a supportive conversation to help the Lost recognize the difficulties they are having and how they're impacting their work performance. "Use clear and simple language," she advises. "Offer support if you can."
The Robotic character is someone who is really limited in social skill and nuance, and they can be prone to tantrums that make coworkers feel uneasy, Foster says. Because they act so emotionally disconnected, people often don't understand them and just get very angry. But this is work, so you have to deal. To do so, Foster suggests one-on-one meetings over a group setting. "Rigid, predictable schedules and explicit defined tasks are ideal," she explains. "Helping the Robotic recognize how their behavior may impact the feelings of other can be beneficial."
You def know this one. The Eccentric is the strange or weird person who brings odd or magical beliefs into the workplace. Dr. Foster has an anecdote in the book about a physician she once knew who was a perfectly functioning doctor, did everything OK, but when you got into a conversation with her you learned she believed every single medical problem in the universe all boiled down to... lead poisoning.
"Eccentrics cause some difficulty in the workplace because they rouse interest and some discomfort, but they don't generally have too much interpersonal difficulty," she says. To deal with them you, should be gently direct as you point out that their personal beliefs shouldn't be thrust onto others.
The Suspicious is a paranoid soul who views the world in conspiratorial terms. They are always looking for how they will be or have already been screwed over, or who's not telling them the truth. "Individuals of this type are always on the lookout for harm, exploitation, and deception," Foster says. "They judge relationships by their degrees of loyalty and trust." These characters are very touchy, so Foster suggests handling them very directly and clearly, offering a choice between alternatives when possible so as to help them feel more in control. "Direct conversation using simple statements and explanations works best," Foster notes, adding that the Suspicious is the type most prone to bring violence into a workplace. On that note, she cautions, "Always try to avoid being confrontational."
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