I haven't thought seriously about becoming a zookeeper since I was, perhaps, six. But when I was recently given the opportunity to trade in my regular job—which ranges from writing books and articles to, when the going gets tough, selling things on eBay—for a taste of my "dream job," it took me about four seconds to start packing. Sure, it required putting my dog in a kennel, but the prospect of spending my working hours in the company of lions, elephants, and polar bears, the latter of which surely would require hand-feeding if not out-and-out cuddling, made it all worthwhile. Everyone has some idealized notion of their alternate career, and now there's a new travel company that lets you live out those fantasies. Part travel agency, part career-counseling service, VocationVacations allows you to temporarily swap your regular job for the job you think you really want.
The Portland, Oregon-based company is the brainchild of Brian Kurth, a self-described former "Dilbert working at the phone company" (he was really the manager of an Internet security provider who got laid off during the dot-com bust), who thought of the idea while stuck in rush-hour traffic in Chicago four years ago. After touring the country for six months and asking himself what he really wanted to do, he moved to Portland and set out to help other people answer that same question. With an ever-growing list of job packages, ranging from architect to cowboy-boot maker to Mississippi riverboat pilot (and running in length from one day to two weeks), VocationVacations is basically offering summer internships for grown-ups. The company recently opened an office in Britain: there, you can apprentice with the renowned floral arranger Paula Pryke in London or with a photojournalist in Scotland.
After convincing my friends that I do not wish to be a wedding planner, makeupartist, or TV producer (though I am seriously on the fence about dogsled outfitter and an intriguing position called "car tester and reviewer"), I fly to Portland to begin my two-day stint at the Oregon Zoo.
My first lesson is that most zookeepers arrive at work around 5:30 a.m. to catch up on paperwork—everything, from the animals' weight fluctuations to their hormone levels, is recorded vigilantly—before beginning the morning feedings. Actually, that's my second lesson. My first lesson is that elephant barns don't exactly smell like Perfumes Plus, but they're downright aromatic compared to rhino barns, which, due largely to the fact that they're heated, house a scent that I cannot accurately describe in polite language. But zookeepers, unsurprisingly, seem immune to the olfactory hazards of their work environment. Like parents who love their children despite any amount of sensory unpleasantness, they care for the animals with a combination of compassion and restraint that most pet owners could learn from. The keepers recognize that animals are not people and should be respected on their own terms. In other words, no cuddling the bears.
Vocationers, on the other hand (at least this particular vocationer), have no idea what's going on. The zookeepers prove to be excellent teachers, however, tolerant of my inane revelations ("I didn't know elephants could lie down!") and careful to keep me from walking dangerously close to the more mischievous creatures, such as Eddie, the otter, whose eagerness in receiving his fish has caused him to bite just about all of his keepers. Many bear the scars of Eddie's "enthusiasm," but they love him anyway. The zookeepers are also more than willing to razz me about my zoological ineptitude, and that makes me feel like part of the family. "I can tell you're cut out for this," says Michael Illig, the endearingly goofy keeper of the North American collection, as I whack my head against a ladder. "Do you really write for a magazine or did you just wander in off the street?"
The concept of "enrichment" is constantly implemented here—the animals are given cognitive stimulation to keep them from becoming bored and depressed. Polar bears, for instance, receive their fish in a toy that's fashioned from bound-together plastic crates. Getting the food out becomes a challenge that takes up much of the day. The resulting activity, a playful tossing around of the crates and belly rolls on the ice, is entertaining for visitors to watch, but it also provides a workout for the bears and keeps them from lying around and becoming overweight—a problem for all captive animals. One locally famous elephant named Rama has the benefit of an ambitious keeper named Jeb Barsh, who discovered that the animal would suck nontoxic paint up his trunk and spray it around on large canvases. This endeavor has turned Rama into a pachyderm Jackson Pollock, with paintings selling for as much as $1,500 and proceeds going to additional enrichment programs. Sadly, my visit does not coincide with one of Rama's painting days (temperamental artist that he is).
As the very first vocationer at the Oregon Zoo, I get to try my hand with a variety of animals (future vocationers will be able to choose a concentration). I do, however, feel that I have developed a specialty, and that is poop. Even though I get to hose down the elephant barn, chop up fish for sea lions, rake leaves in a bald-eagle aviary, feed celery to two frisky (and sharp-toothed) ringtails, snuggle with some pygmy goats (finally, a cuddle opportunity!), I end up shoveling more poop than I was aware could be produced by the population of Oregon, much less a select number of zoo residents. Sure, I do get to assist in drawing a blood sample from a rhino, an unnerving process that involves several attempts to find a vein in her ear, but poop—whether I'm scooping it into a wheelbarrow or knocking it off my boots—unequivocally rules the day.
As the hours pass, I realize that as much fun as the animals are, most of the zookeepers, with their wry humor, their relaxed demeanor, and their utter lack of pretension, are even more fun. There is, perhaps, no better measure of the quality of a job experience than the pleasure one takes in one's colleagues, and it's not long before I discover that zookeepers, despite their claims that they're "more comfortable around animals than people," are some of the smartest, coolest, sanest human beings you could ever meet. Talking to them, I have no doubt that despite the inevitable bureaucracies, the not-exactly-executive-level pay, and, yes, the smell, they truly are doing their dream jobs. One of the keepers tells me that the last time a position was open, over 200 people applied.
I must admit that I, too, am tempted to become a zookeeper—if only for the money I'd save in unnecessary grooming products. The typical zookeeper getup?Fleece jacket, waterproof boots, and a hairstyle that, miraculously, does not require "product." I also notice that zookeepers possess to an inordinate degree a quality I do not have enough of: patience. No matter how much training an animal has and how much he wants to please his handlers, he's not going to learn a new skill or understand a command until he's good and ready. It can take months, or even years, to teach an elephant to stand still for the vet. The zookeeper's job is to wait, and to understand that animals don't operate on a nine-to-five schedule.
"What I hate is when people say to me at parties, 'You're a zookeeper?How can you stand it?Zoos are so cruel,'" Amy Cutting, a 32-year-old keeper, tells me. It's easy to imagine a roomful of thirtysomething Portlanders being both fascinated and clueless about her job. But her response to their lack of understanding gets right to the heart of the VocationVacations premise, namely that for many, a "dream job" has a lot to do with being directly connected to the task at hand, with being vital. "Eight hours a day, I'm all these animals have," Cutting says. "It's too convenient to just pretend zoos don't exist. As long as they do, I want to know that I'm doing everything I can to make the animals' lives as good as they can be."