More than Words

Take a Look Behind the Scenes of the Zagreb Zoo

I like to believe that what makes every city special are the people who live in it. This is also an idea behind our monthly interviews with Zagreb locals. Through the interviews, we want to introduce our neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whose stories should be heard far out of their own community.

This month we have talked with Marija, who is one of the zookeepers of the Zagreb Zoo. We covered different topics, from everyday life with animals to fun anecdotes throughout the years. 

To start with, introduce yourself in short. How long have you been working in the Zagreb Zoo? 

I've started working in the Zagreb Zoo in 2012 as a student in the education department. I always wanted to have a job where I can pass the knowledge onto others and that it has something to do with the animals. When I saw a student job opportunity in the Zagreb Zoo, I knew I was the perfect fit.  

Image credit: M. Vrdoljak, TZGZ

How does a regular workday of a zookeeper look like?

As I still work part-time in the education department of the zoo and part-time as a zookeeper, my day is usually split between the two. My job as a zookeeper is to take care of the animals, which take part in the educational programs of the zoo. Every day, I have to feed them, make sure that they have fresh water, check if there are any changes on their body or in their behavior. For example, check if the snakes are ready to change their old skin and shell, if everything is OK with their terrarium or weigh them to see if their weight has changed due to different season or higher activity.

Is there anything special that you want to highlight about the animals that you take care of, something that most people don't know?

One of the animals who take part in our educational program is royal phytons. When they feel threatened, they curl into a ball-like form. In these situations, they don't like big open spaces. This is why I keep them in smaller terrariums in the beginning. So, they could feel safe and comfortable. 

Image credit: Zagreb Zoo

Do you have any favorites among the animals you take care of?

I love equally all the animals I take care of. But, I have a special respect for rodents. I think they are intelligent and very social little animals. Rats are even my favorite out of all the rodents because they are generally perceived as negative and as dirty animals while they are, in fact, quite dear and clean. This is the kind of information which we want to share with our visitors. We want to crash all the animal stereotypes, and when we manage to achieve that, we are very happy.

Have you ever felt fear when entering animal spaces like cages or terrariums?

I can't say I was indifferent to the snakes when I just started to work as a zookeeper. I had huge respect towards these animals and certainly a dose of fear. But, with time, I learned to work with them. The most important thing is to stay calm when working with any animal. Today, there is no more this beginner fear, but my respect for them is even bigger. 

Image credit: Zagreb Zoo

Is there some kind of training for the zookeepers before they start working with animals? 

Every person that comes to Zagreb Zoo needs to pass a certain training and process of learning from the older colleagues. No one just comes and starts working immediately with the animals. There is a place and time for taking responsibility for a particular animal. We learn throughout our whole lives. The same is in our job. This is a relationship that always needs to be improved and worked on by taking into account all the new information as our knowledge about the animal world changes.

Do you maybe have an anecdote that happened throughout the years of your work with animals that you'd like to share with our readers?

Hmmm, one of the extraordinary experiences I had was when I was able to change the opinion of visitors. Specifically, we were announced that we were going to have a visit from a group of students who strongly felt that zoos were a terrible occurrence and should be abolished. Their teacher insisted that they visit us and see that this was not the case, so I volunteered to guide them through our zoo and try to change their minds.

Through conversation, we came up with three main reasons why zoos exist at all. These are the education of the citizens, research, and protection of endangered animal species. We also went through all the aspects of the zookeeper's job, and I explained how much love for animals there really is in it. All of this ultimately resulted in success. They went home with a new attitude about zoos, which they decided to share further.

Is there an animal species which thrills the visitor the most? 

Mammals are by far the most favorite and liked animals. It seems to me that we all love those cute and fluffy faces of theirs the most. Among the animals of our zoo, I could say that the most popular are red pandas, African lions, mercats, sea lions, and lemurs.

Which animal you work with can be best trained and taught of a variety of tricks and which are maybe most stubborn?