28 March 1942. National magazine London Life reader’s questions page –
Amateur Zooman writes: “I have got a wartime job as attendant to animals in a small zoo, being unfitted for military service through old war wounds and have been told by my employers that there is only one thing to learn, and that is how to lure the animals safely in and out of their cages, as I have been warned against pushing them with a brush as it makes the big cats angry.
Up until now I haven’t had much success and am wondering if the ‘Brains Trust’ can find out for me some easy ways of luring the big cats back again after their cages have been cleaned?
Unfortunately the man who did the job before me has been called up and not been able to train me. I am absolutely single handed so please help! “
This is an intriguing reader’s letter in wartime 1942 from one of the many older men called in to keep zoos going when younger staff joined up or were conscripted. It could equally have been written by one of the many women who stepped temporarily in to fill keeper posts in wartime.
This untrained keeper or ‘Amateur Zooman’ is interestingly an injured veteran from the First World War “being unfitted for military service through old war wounds”.
The advice or reply given is from an animal trainer attached to a wartime circus.
“An animal trainer attached to one of the big circuses tealls us that big cats are playful and if you are not careful they will lean on the gate and shut you in, but that any animal will return quickly to a cleaned cage if a titbit of food is placed in the furthest corner. He will associate this titbit with getting back into his den.
Also all big felines like to be talked to! They will do more for an attendant who talks to them as though they were intelligent than for one who treats them as savage, dumb beasts. Big cats are very curious, and if they see you doing anything unusual, are quite likely to try and get into the cage with you to investigate, so be sure that any intervening door is well closed.
When a big cat is angry, leave him alone. Don’t force any action on him, or he will bear a grudge against you for days. Leave him to himself and he will soon get over his moods.”
I wondered how this 1942 advice would stand up today in the world of modern zoos and big cat conservation, 75 years later.
I asked my zoo colleagues who are modern big cat keepers on carnivore section at Newquay Zoo what they thought of this interesting wartime article and its advice.
Owen, one of our senior keepers responded thus on behalf of the others:
Interesting little read.
The response given isn’t actually a bad one! What the new keeper may not have realised is he is being asked is to positively reinforce the cat to move where he wants by using a small piece of food as a reward, as we currently do with the lionesses here.
The other option that could have been looked into then (albeit not overly common back in the day in zoos) would’ve been to train the animal/animals to go to station or target train them to touch the target to receive a reward (a small piece of meat) which again is a form of positive reinforcement. The target training would have also easily led the cats into moving for him.
The building a relationship by talking and training with the cat is always a good idea. It’s always better to be seen as the ‘good guy’ on a regular basis than the ‘bad guy’.
Some species are more likely to approach you than others and tigers seem to be more pro-keeper than some of the other big cat species, even chuffing at keepers to say hello. Not that they can comprehend our language but it is a way of getting to know you and we, as keepers, talk to the animals on a daily basis.
Although it is dated, the reply to him actually makes a lot of sense. We didn’t necessarily have the knowledge then as we do now but the talk of positive reinforcement and the keeper not wanting to negatively reinforce the animal movement (the brush mentioned) sounds like he wanted to do a good job!
Another thing I would’ve mentioned is not to underestimate them! They’re smarter than what people give them credit for and not to mention very dangerous.
Owen, Senior Keeper, Carnivore section, Newquay Zoo
This answer from Owen is a longer and more detailed answer than mine, which would be write to the Ministry of Labour and ” get another job, any job, especially one that isn’t going to eat you …”
Owen’s answer is a brilliant modern keeper interpretation of the original advice using our modern zoo speak, which communicates our modern zoo mission – enrichment, positive training – and animal welfare etc.
An interesting article which works really well as a ‘Then and Now’ piece, what has changed and what has not changed!
Blogposted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo, January 2017