This Place is a Zoo

How thinking of your workplace as a zoo might make you a better manager


 Show No Fear

 One of my earliest memories as a zookeeper is a tense moment with an elephant. As a night keeper at a large, well-known safari park in the early 1970’s, the first task on my evening shift was to help walk five African elephants some two hundred yards from their exhibit yard to their night barn at the end of the day. They walked trunk-to-tail through a pasture occupied by zebra, giraffe, and other hoofed stock without incident – except on those occasions when the nine-year-old bull, Bwana, decided to break out of line. His usual tactic was to run a few yards away, turn toward his handlers with his ears fanned out in a threat display, and dare us to approach him. On those evenings when I was the lead handler, it was my job to slowly walk toward him, calming him with the command “Bwana steady”, grab the six thousand pound animal by the tusk, and tell him to “move up”


I was taught to show no fear and be firm and commanding with the elephants. I carried a short stick with a small hook on the end of it, which we used it to push, pull, and guide the animals, not unlike a leash on a dog or a bridle and bit on a horse. When I had earlier called the elephants from the exhibit to “move up” and “come in line”, they all knew I meant business. The lead elephant was a steady, old female named Elke and, after they were all in line with trunks up and I commanded “go on away”, the five animals calmly grabbed tails with trunks as we all ambled toward the barn. When Bwana broke with the routine and decided to test the system,  my hands would tremble and my heart would thump as I considered what I would do if he refused my orders. He never did. It was only later in my career, after numerous reports of elephants killing their handlers, that I came to appreciate just how much danger I was really in.

The Herd as a Team

 As a manager of people, I have also had to reach out to employees countless times to calm them down and bring them back in line. I have used soothing words and, on occasion, stern discipline, but the goal has always been the same – to diffuse the situation, to seek solutions, and to keep the herd functioning as a team.

It might seem an unlikely comparison but, similarities exist between how we manage employees in the workplace and how we keep animals in a zoo. When people utter the phrase “this place is a zoo” referring to their workplace, they are implying chaos, but few places are as organized, structured, and well managed as a zoo. Consider that zoo residents are escape artists with finicky diets, myriad health issues, and, for many, an instinct to kill their caretakers. Then consider that, even after being clawed, gored, kicked, and bitten, their caretakers will do anything it takes to provide the best possible care.

A Captive Workforce

 But why are animals in captivity in the first place? The reasons are many. These days, most of them were born to it. It is all they know and, in most cases, it is all they will ever know. It is fine to talk about returning them to the wild, but what if there is no wild to which they can return? Maybe captivity done right is not such a bad thing.

My dog Chelsea is as captive as any zoo animal. Her cage is my house and the fenced back yard. Yet no one who knows her ever says that poor Chelsea should be set free. In fact, most people think she has it pretty darned good. Why couldn’t the same be said for animals in the right conditions in a zoo? In most cases, putting them back in the wild is an illusion, akin to repatriating refugee children to their drug-ridden slums in Central America.

Many people consider the workplace a form of captivity. Although work may be a matter of choice, most of us are tied to it for our very existence. Some of us may be happy and fulfilled, but many are miserable and can’t afford to just quit and walk away. We are held captive by our need for money on which to live. And there are other similarities. In the zoo, we have three main constituents – the animals, the zoo keepers, and the visitors. In the workplace, it is the workers, the managers, and the customers.

My forthcoming book, This Place is a Zoo: How thinking of your workplace as a zoo might make you a better manager will look at the similarities in some detail. My Monday Blogs will give a preview. Next up – Rewards.

One Comment

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  1. Seems like we need a few lessons on keeping the herd functioning!

    Liked by 1 person

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