Coping with Coronavirus Like a Zookeeper

PJ Beaven

ZooFit Coach and Consultant

Times are crazy right now. People are hoarding toilet paper and treating hand sanitizer like it’s the golden ticket to survive the apocalypse. If you asked your neighbor how their toilet paper supply was holding up back in January, you would have been called crazy. Now, it’s a standard greeting.

It’s certainly understandable that many of us are stressed out to the core. Whether it’s from working ten to twelve hour shifts, working on skeleton crew, or covering areas you have never worked before, stress is at its peak. Even in situations where you aren’t working- anxiety is high for a lot of us.

I’ve heard many worried concerns from other zookeepers. But as tough as these times are, I know zookeepers are tougher. Heck, most of the protocols health officials are imploring everyone to adhere to are standards we practice every day. Washing our hands? We wash our hands before and after we use the restroom. Not touching our face? We don’t want to touch any part of our body because we’re never sure if there’s dirt, raw meat, blood, urine, poop, or who-knows-what on our hands (I mean, it’s why we wash our hands before going to the bathroom). Many of us wear protection when dealing with our animals, including masks, gloves, goggles, and even Tyvek suits.  

But, being able to withstand the stress doesn’t make it any easier to cope with stress. Luckily, again, we are animal professionals, and all we have to do is turn our attention to the years and years of experience handed down by animal training experts. We’ve probably all heard sayings such as “go back to kindergarten”, “you get the behaviors you reinforce”, “focus on the positive”, and “set them up for success”. These mantras work absolutely fantastic for us in this situation as well.

Let’s go through some of these philosophies and see how they can be applied to our daily lives:

Focus on the Positive

With so much negativity in our lives right now, and seemingly no end in sight, it can feel a little hypocritical to be happy. But frankly, that’s not just what the world needs right now, it’s what our animals need as well. We focus on their positive behavior all the time. Why don’t we do it for ourselves?

Practicing daily gratitude is seriously one of the quickest and simplest ways to boost your mood and promote optimism. Dr. Dan Baker, the director of the Life Enhancement Program states, “It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”

So, when we are feeling anxious, stressed, or fearful about events (which we have no control over), take a pause to repeat to yourself things you are grateful for. This practice doesn’t just help us be more positive in the moment; practicing daily gratitude promotes uplifting emotions throughout our day as well.   

This little gem, focusing on the positive, isn’t a Pollyanna view of the world we are experiencing right now. I’m not suggesting you ignore negative feelings completely. Depression and anxiety disorders aren’t going to disappear because you are thankful for your family being healthy. But even in animal training, we don’t ignore undesired behaviors. We just maintain a focus on the positive behaviors- we redirect, give an LRS (not an ignore), or implement an incompatible behavior. Gratitude works a lot like that. If being grateful is incompatible, in the moment, with stress and fear, then it’s definitely worth trying to cope with the anxiety that surrounds us.

Just before the coronavirus took over, I had fallen into what I called my “existential crisis”. I wanted to give up on everything I had been working on for the last five years. A good friend encouraged me to keep a gratitude journal for thirty days. Every day, I wrote three things I was grateful for, three things I was looking forward to the next day, three things that went well that day, and three things that needed work. I rolled my eyes, because I knew where this was headed- I couldn’t be actively practicing gratitude and stuck in my head at the same time. But I practiced it. Within ten days, I could see a visual difference in my attitude. I had more hope, more excitement, and even though coronavirus had disrupted several opportunities for me, I was experiencing a lot more joy and optimism.

Set Yourself Up for Success

No one walks up for a training session thinking God, I hope these animals fail. We even turn training into a fun game where the animal always wins, by focusing on the positive, going back to kindergarten when necessary, and reinforcing the behaviors we want. But the first, and probably most helpful way we achieve our goal is by setting the animal up for success.

To set animals up for success, we ensure we have every tool or piece of equipment necessary for the session. We clear the area of distractions so it’s easier to focus. We have a training plan and work at the stage the animal is currently working. This attention to detail is often the difference between a truly great training session, and a fairly frustrating one. I’ve had my share of both- and learned to set the animal (and myself) up for success.

The success we want to set ourselves up for is being the best zookeeper for our animals. This applies to those of us at home and those working double time to ensure great care. Successful self-care is successful animal care.

That’s the first tier- self-care. We set ourselves up for great self-care with actually one simple action- sleep. Most people recognize exercise and nutrition as pillars for a healthy life, but it is sleep that is considered the foundation upon which exercise and nutrition stand. Without proper rest, even our fitness and nutrition suffers. Most experts don’t just recommend, they state quite firmly that humans need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sleep sets us up to succeed in whatever our day has in store.

Your day starts the night before. We can set ourselves up for a successful night’s rest by planning and preparing to get enough rest throughout the night. Culture has made prioritizing sleep seem like the lazy man’s agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we prioritize sleep, we are essentially setting our mind right, which is very much like setting up for a training session before we get started. Those who sleep well each night regularly outperform those with minimal amount of rest.

There are dozens of ways to prepare for a good night’s sleep. You can try meditation (the health benefits are astonishing), turning down your thermostat a few degrees and blocking out all lights (we sleep better in cold, dark, and quiet environments), and turning off all electronic devices an hour before going to bed. In essence, remove all distractions which stimulate our brain up and keep us awake. Give your mind and body a chance to recognize it is time to rest and recuperate and make each morning, and each day a masterpiece.

Go Back to Kindergarten

Your schedule is completely out of whack. Or you don’t have a schedule anymore. What would an animal trainer do in a similar situation? After a stressful event (such as moving to a new exhibit or facility, or introducing a new animal), are our expectations the same as before the new circumstances were introduced? Probably not. Of course, there are rock-star exceptions, but usually when our animals experience a huge change, we relax our criteria, temporarily, until they get accustomed. Often we call this “lowering the criteria”. Karen Pryor describes this concept as “going back to kindergarten”.

Typically used in a training situation where the animals have regressed, or plateaued, “going back to kindergarten” doesn’t mean we start over from scratch. It means we go back to the baseline where we were achieving success.

Similarly, if we are feeling our lives disrupted, and established habits have diminished considerably, going back to kindergarten may work well for you, too. Lower your expectations until you get back into a groove. You don’t have to start over from scratch, just go back to the point where you were achieving success.

For instance, if you developed a habit of going to the gym before your shift (congratulations, by the way- way to take care of your animals by taking care of yourself!), but now you find your gym is closed, you don’t have to start over from scratch, and create a whole new workout routine. We can lower our criteria, and show ourselves some compassion. We are experiencing a stressful situation. Exercise is a wonderful way to cope with stress. It helps us clear and focus our thoughts, gives us energy, , improves our mood, and prevents illness (probably not the coronavirus, but exercise does strengthen your immune system). But, with the current environment, you don’t have to be at the same level as before our circumstances changed so drastically. You can simply incorporate movement into your day- parking further from your unit and walking, practice good deadlift and squat form when picking up feed and grain bags or hay bales, and using broken rake handles (I know you all have them) to stretch your muscles before, during, and after your shift. If you are at home, set a timer to go off every 15-20 minutes to remind you to get up and move just a little- stretch, 10 push-ups, 10 jumping jacks, go up and down a flight of stairs. Just move.

Going back to kindergarten isn’t just helpful for fitness and exercise. It can help us cope with this uncertain time by applying the principle to all our habits. Perhaps before COVID-19, you were really improving your eating habits, getting enough sleep, or spending leisure time reading, or with your family. These are aspects that may have been uprooted recently, but going back to basics, returning to a baseline which is easy for you to achieve right here and now, is a great start to getting back to normal.

You Get the Behaviors You Reinforce

A 2013 study after the Boston Marathon bombing showed the more media participants consumed, particularly of media which showed images of the event, the more stress and anxiety they experienced. What surprised the researchers was that the levels of negative stress in watchers was even higher than those who were actually at the event.

The most ironic thing about this whole study, to me, is that the media reported on the study, acknowledged that reporting negative events over and over doesn’t help stress and anxiety, but they still continuously focus on hyped-up, dramatized, and sensationalized programs and stories. Why would the media ignore the negative health effects to so much negativity? Because it is heavily reinforced by the general public. The more gory, scandalous, and over-the-top the story or report, the better. It’s why Joe Exotic gets so much attention in the media.

We get the behaviors we reinforce with our animals, and we get the behaviors we reinforce from everyone and everything around us. When a behavior deteriorates or regresses, we often have to look at ourselves for the cause. Animals, humans included, are only going to repeat the behaviors with the least amount of effort, that earn them the most reward. This happens in zoos, in animals’ natural environment, and it happens every day with humans.

Our brains, as developed and sophisticated as they are, were not built to handle the amount of input we receive each and every day. Instead of dealing with the occasional lion now and then, we are dealing with the entire jungle constantly roaring at us every day. It’s these constant calls for our attention- news alerts,  “must watch” television programs, and the barrage of ads, texts, and emails.

I’m not saying we should all just quit watching television. Just remember, we get the behaviors, and in this particular case, the programs, that we reinforce. If you find yourself yelling at the television in frustration, perhaps it is time to change the channel. It might just be the best thing you can do for your mental wellness. It’s not just the media we reinforce with our attention, we reinforce how we respond to these inputs as well. The more you subject yourself to stress-inducing inputs, the more your brain will produce stress-responsive hormones, which put us in a high-alert, post-traumatic stress disorder mentality.

Fill your attention with updates that affect you personally. Keep up to date with your facility’s updates and your local and state recommendations (or mandates) for social distancing/sheltering in place. And then go watch adorable videos of your animals playing with enrichment, or True Facts on YouTube.

I could write an article ten times longer on all the methods available to help us cope with coronavirus. But if you simply be kind to yourself, go back to kindergarten, reinforce the behaviors you want, and set yourself up for success by taking care of yourself, you won’t just survive this pandemic. You will thrive, your animals will thrive, and you’ll stand out as a strong example of why zookeepers are truly everyday heroes.

You’ve got this. I believe in you, and I’ll be there for you every step of the way.

Bibliography

  1. Baker, Dan, Ph.D., What Happy People Know, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2004
  2. Holman, Alison; Garfin, Dana; Silver Roxane, Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, December 9, 2013
  3. Pryor, Karen, Lads Before the Wind, Harper & Row, 1975
  4. Villoldo, Alberto, One Spirit Medicine, Hay House, Inc, 2016
  5. Walker, Matthew, Why We Sleep, Scribner, 2017