I hadn't been out of college for a year yet. I was lying awake in my too-small bed in a too-cold house which I was not in the position to heat adequately. As I lay, huddled under the sheets, probably close to midnight, I listened to the wind whistling through the branches outside, occasionally tapping against the window. Periodically, an owl would hoot - under normal circumstances, this would have caught my interest, but lately it had become routine. Soon, overlaying the hooting came the howling of wolves - two of them, in fact - just a hundred yards from my room. After that, there was a pregnant pause... shattered by the sudden roar of a tiger.
Muttering, I slipped my boots on and pulled my jacket off of my chair. Probably should go and check that out, I thought as I grabbed a flashlight and slouched off into the night.
Growing up, I'd always wanted to be a zookeeper. Not just that, the thought of living at the zoo held enormous appeal to me. No messing around with a crazy commute. Always being on hand for emergencies. Always having the option of an after-dinner stroll among the animals, or finding inspiration in my work.
The reality, for the two months that I enjoyed it, was a little less thrilling.
Zookeeping is a hard job - physically, mentally, and emotionally. It takes a lot out of you, and you really need a chance to recharge, lest you burn out. When you literally live at work, it becomes very hard to take the necessary step back to recharge. Take up another hobby. Get some rest.
Well, maybe it's easier for other people. I'm neurotic as hell, so I couldn't. I felt like I owed the animals every moment of my time... and, as I believe I mentioned in the intro to this piece, they ate into what should have been the sleeping time too. Long after I'd officially clocked out, I'd be roaming the grounds, fixing up enrichment, squeezing in a training session, or cleaning an enclosure for the second or third time that day. If I couldn't think of anything animal related to do, there were always weeds to pull.
Oh, and having a house on grounds means that you always have to worry about the potential of intrusion from the most vexing of zoo animals - the public.
Which isn't to say that there weren't some quite enjoyable perks to the living arrangements. Not least of all, there was all the money I saved. I don't think I ever took half as much to the bank as I did during those two profitable months. Even discounting the financial side, there were the moments of joy with the animals. After hours, when all was quiet and still, I got the chance to get to know many of my charges far better than I did during the day. Shy animals came out and were active. Aggressive ones tend to be calmer, less riled by crowds. With the heat of the day long past, animals emerge from their sleeping spots and engage in all sorts of behaviors - with only me to watch.
Plus, there were the perks of convenience, living right at work. I'm a quick riser in the morning, so I was literally able to roll out of bed fifteen minutes before my shift started. If I had slow time (and there was a lot of that on those rainy few months), I could pop back home for a rest. Covered in muck? Easy enough, go home and take a shower. Forgot lunch? No I didn't - I never bothered to pack it, since I could just saunter back to the kitchen every noon.
For reasons unrelated to my choice of residence, I eventually left this zoo and took on another job at another facility, where I lived in a far less exciting set-up. It really helped lower my stress levels and allowed me the time to take up some guilt-free hobbies (like... blogging about zoos).
Still, I miss those wolves howling on those late autumn nights.
The five AM wake-up calls from the siamangs? Less so.