A lot of people either don’t know, or don’t seem to care about proper conduct in a place where animals (that do not belong to you) are kept, but proper conduct is often very important. Here are some of the most important things.
Noticing, Reading, and Obeying Signage:
Since zoo and aquarium staff cannot always be monitoring the public-facing parts of their exhibits, they often rely on signage to tell guests what they need to know. Some examples include: “Do Not Climb on Rocks,” a hand with a “no” symbol across it (“do not touch”), “Animals May Bite,” and “Please wait for one door to close before opening the next.” These signs are not there for convenience, but for the safety of guests and/or animals.
Note: some zoo administrations do not allow overly “negative” language on their signs, which means they are not always literally accurate. “Animals May Bite” does NOT mean ‘you can touch the animals as long as you understand the risk.’ It means ‘animals WILL bite, do not touch them.’
Pet stores often have important signs as well; those that do cat adoptions often have signs asking that customers please not touch the cats through the bars. This is important for prevention of disease. If you would like to pet or hold a cat, please ask an adoption rep or store employee.
Visual and Physical Boundaries:
Even if a boundary is not physically built so that it can completely block hands or bodies, it is important to respect it. Tortoises, for example, are not much of an escape risk, and so may be kept behind low walls to allow for better viewing (and easier access for keepers). This does not mean that it is okay to reach into the enclosure. If there is a wall, a rope, or a chain, it is almost always an indicator that you are meant to stay on your side of it.
Additionally, and this is VERY IMPORTANT: do NOT climb on the walls or fences surrounding enclosures. Do NOT rest your child on the walls or fences surrounding enclosures to give them a better view. This has caused some very tragic accidents, and I still see people do it almost every single day.
Another type of boundary is doors. Many zoos may have free flight aviaries, butterfly houses, and other types of free-roaming exhibits. Most of these exhibits have two sets of doors with a vestibule in between. It is important that only one set of doors be open at a time. Do not hold one set of doors open while someone else is coming through the other set. Do not rush through the vestibule and open the next door before the first one has fallen closed. Escape and recapture can be extremely stressful and dangerous for some animals, and some types of animal escape (particularly butterflies) can violate agricultural or wildlife laws.
Some of these may be double-covered by signage, but I’ll go over them anyway.
Do not touch animals unless you have explicit permission to do so. It does not matter if the animal is big and slow and does not seem dangerous. It does not matter if you have the same kind of animal as a pet at home. It does not matter if you feel you have a connection with animals. Do not touch them. They are not yours, and you do not know them. You don’t know what kind of stress you may cause them, or what behavioral issues you may be aggravating (I knew a bird who was very aggressive because guests constantly tried to pet her; funny thing, it was usually staff members who got chased and bitten). Additionally, there is a saying: “anything with a mouth can bite.” It’s true. And animals that you think of as slow and docile are frequently able to move much faster and bite much harder than you expect them to.
Many zoos have a “petting zoo” area, and this is a great place to go if you want to touch animals.
Do not feed animals unless you have explicit permission to do so. There may be areas when you can feed animals, such as turtle food dispensers, or chow dispensers for domesticated animals like goats. This does not mean all animals are okay to feed. You should not give tortoises the turtle chow. You should not offer the zebras the goat chow. You DEFINITELY should not pick plants you find around the zoo and offer them to ANY animals. Most zoo animals are on carefully formulated diets, and may have specific dietary concerns that you don’t know about; some birds can become very sick from even a small amount of iron, for example, and animals can develop allergies just like humans. One example that I see frequently is guests feeding fallen black walnuts to tortoises; the animals accept these with evident enthusiasm, but they cause stomach upset and foaming at the mouth.
If you want to feed animals, check out the petting zoo areas! Also, pay attention to the schedule of keeper feedings and talks; a few may allow guests to participate.
And finally, while I can certainly understand the frustration of going to the zoo only to see an animal sleeping with its back to you so you can’t see it, please be considerate about trying to attract their attention. Things like calling out to them, finger-snapping, and making kissy noises, while possibly irritating to keepers, probably does not do animals any harm. However, bear in mind that they hear those noises all the time, and are probably very used to them and unlikely to respond. That said, tapping on aquarium glass is considered rude. The sound carries very well through water, and can be terrifyingly loud to aquatic animals.
Lastly (and a little less seriously), Questions that Bug Zookeepers:
These aren’t that big of a deal, since they don’t tend to have a direct effect on animal welfare or guest safety.
“Can you make it move?” Well, how would you like it if you were having a nap and someone came along and poked you with a stick? I might technically be capable of inducing the animal to move, but I probably won’t. Animals deserve respect too.
“Is that fake/real/actually alive?” While it’s possible that some zoos may have inanimate dioramas or statues, if it’s actually inside an exhibit, surrounded by other live animal exhibits, it’s probably alive. You may be looking at a “sit and wait” predator that spends most of its day perfectly still waiting for prey, or a nocturnal animal that spends most of its day napping. Displaying a fake, animatronic, or dead animal amongst a bunch of real ones is highly unlikely.
“Why does it smell so bad?” Two words: everybody poops.
Beyond that, don’t be afraid to ask staff members questions—even if they seem silly. You don’t have to be as much of an expert as the keepers themselves, and you deserve a respectful answer. If you get rudeness or mockery for your question, the keeper is in the wrong, not you. And if you’re concerned about an animal’s health, don’t be afraid to approach a staff member. 90% of the time it will be a known issue or a normal behavior that looks strange to those who haven’t seen it before (birds basking in the sun can sometimes appear to have sprawled out and died). But the other 10% of the time can be vital.
Staying behind barriers can also be incredibly important for the stress and well-being of animals, because for some territorial species like anything from wolves to cranes, that first fence around their exhibit is their territory line, and even if they’re on the other side of the exhibit, if you cross it it can seriously stress them out. I’ve seen cranes that have broken their beak because they tried to get to people who leaned over or crossed the first small fence around the enclosure. This is not ok, even if you know you’re completely safe.
Even if you’ve seen other people petting an animal, or you know it’s an education animal, WAIT UNTIL YOU HAVE EXPLICIT PERMISSION like this said. Seriously. I’ve gotten scratched and nearly bitten because people walk up to me with education animals and grab for them. I’m happy to let you pet these animals, but I need to make sure you know where to safely pet them and that the animal is calm and will react favorable for the safety of both you and the animal.