Volunteers Cleaning a 3 Acre Cage

Animal Husbandry





Much of the Keeper’s time is spent in basic husbandry routines such as cleaning and feeding. Unless efficient procedures are mastered the Keeper can waste much time in unnecessary movement and labour, especially where large areas must be covered. Proper routines are efficient, effective and flexible; they have been developed over a period of time into the best way to cope with a particular job. Routines are always subjected to change as they deal with living, changing animals; routines evolve and change as necessary for safety and efficiency. Do not stress animals for the sake of the routine.





Volunteers Cleaning a 3 Acre CageA conscientious Keeper becomes thoroughly familiar with the area in which he works. He/she knows the layout of the run or building, location and names of all the individual animals, cages or holding area, entrance and exit doors, and where all the equipment is kept. A good knowledge of the location of all safety equipment (telephones, fire extinguishers and alarms, animal escape equipment) is helpful.

The Keeper should know the condition of the facilities and make necessary repairs promptly, or report the need for repairs right away. It is a good idea to make a daily check to spot needed repairs and note potential hazards. A Keeper who is on good terms and cooperates with the Maintenance Department has a better chance of getting needed work done quickly. If a problem arises the Keeper must determine (a) what effect it will have on the animals, and (b) what precautions must be taken to alleviate the problem. Animals may have to be taken off exhibit or moved temporarily to effect repairs. Remember that the Keeper’s primary responsibility is to the animals he/she cares for.

All barriers, fences, glass, bars, etc. should be routinely inspected to make sure they are strong, safe and in good condition. Do not forget that animals under stress are often capable of prodigious physical feats and feats of strength. Maintain the integrity of your barriers at all times.

No area should have loose fencing, wire, nails, twine, tools, loose boards or protruding screws in it. Everything which is taken into an exhibit for repairs or cleaning, make sure you take out, before the animals are given access. A few extra minutes spent checking your area will prevent possibly fatal accidents. “Hardware disease” occurs when a foreign object, such as a piece of wire, punctures the reticulum of a ruminant; this can easily happen because ruminants are often indiscriminate feeders, and so are exotic cats. Always bend back wire and nails to prevent injury; even years after construction has taken place in an area, nuts, nails and bolts, etc. can work their way to the surface. Sometimes earth fill contains wire, cans, etc. Use a magnet to check over a new exhibit, or where repairs have been made, before the animals are allowed into the exhibit.

Keepers should watch for foreign objects thrown, blown or dropped into exhibits; animals will consume plastic bags, paper cups, the poisonous backing off Polaroid films, coins, etc. Be aware of materials inadvertently left in an animal area that might be thrown or dropped into exhibits (stones, bricks, boards, scrap material, etc.)

Keepers should obey no smoking signs wherever these are posted; older wooden buildings, some beddings are all highly flammable. Each Keeper must know the location and type of fire extinguishers in his area, and what they are used for; fire procedures for each area should be worked out before there is a fire.

Never “fool around” in front of animals. Two Keepers wrestling or even back-slapping can upset some animals, such as primates. Other people (visitors or staff) may upset the animals, and you, as their Keeper may be the object of the animal’s stress or frustration. Always check the condition of your animals before you enter the cage.




One of the goals of the Big Cat Rescue is the conservation of wildlife. We must also consider conserving other resources, such as fuel, water, gas and electricity. Keepers can help conserve resources by efficient work routines and by not wasting water and electricity. This is money down the drain when a resource such as water is wasted. Every dollar saved here can be applied to new exhibits or to updating and repairing older ones.




A basic work routine benefits both Keeper and animals; it helps identify problems, allows for prompt treatment and ensures that all animals in an area receive proper care and attention. It can be used to reassure the animals and reduce stress, by providing them with certain fixed times in their day, and generally is an efficient way for the Keeper to organize his/her work, with the least chance of missing important steps.

When developing or learning a routine, try to avoid having to retrace your steps unnecessarily. Learn to use efficient time and movement patterns in your area. Do not assume that what one Keeper can do can be done by all.

The Keeper’s day usually starts with a check of all animals in his or her area. Where possible this will be done first thing in the morning; at this time all the animals are accounted for, their general condition is noted, as is the general condition of each exhibit, amount of food and water remaining, temperature, etc. where relevant. Before checking, the Keeper should check the dry erase board, read Keeper Observation Reports and if possible speak to the Keeper who last worked in the area (especially if it is some time since you worked in the area). This way the Keeper doesn’t get any unexpected surprises when he/she starts the rounds.

During this first check, all animals that were sick, injured or due to give birth are given extra attention. If any medical or maintenance problem needs immediate attention, the proper personnel are notified promptly. Fences, windows, water levels, temperatures, mesh, and physical features are all checked.

By talking, whistling or singing, the Keeper lets the animals know he is approaching; his voice identifies him to the animal. The sound of the Keeper’s voice can soothe an excited animal; even though the animal can’t understand the words, tone and calmness are easily understood. In some areas a radio can be helpful to provide background sounds and voices.  Animals have highly developed extra sensory perception and can easily pick up on your moods.  Keep a positive attitude and let the animal know that you are just there delivering “room service”.

Before entering an exhibit to remove food or water, or clean, it may be beneficial to the animal to allow it to move to another cage or enclosure. This applies even to animals which pose no threat to the Keeper, as well as to highly excitable or dangerous animals. Cleaning is important but not at the animal’s expense.

Knowing how to work with various species and individual animals is very important. Eye contact can elicit an attack; exotic cats and primates feel threatened or challenged when looked at while some timid species of birds and animals will remain calm and can be moved if the Keeper’s back is kept towards them. Large raptors may be aggressive, but can usually be kept at a safe distance by keeping eye contact all the time the Keeper is working near them. The Keeper should move slowly and deliberately around his/her animals, and try to develop an air of confidence.

Cage cleaning should be thorough and efficient. Keep your proper tools in good working condition, and your disinfectants and cleaners in a safe, convenient location, close at hand, but out of reach of animals. Use chemicals according to their instructions, don’t contaminate an exhibit by flushing debris or feces into it from another cage. Don’t return animals to a unit until it has been properly cleaned, food and water containers cleaned and replaced, all cleaning materials have been removed,  and the cage securely locked.

Some animals anticipate feeding time: it may be the high point in their day. Part of the Keeper’s daily routine is to feed the animals on schedule; this includes both the number of times during the day the animal is to be fed as well as the hour the food is offered. Animals with high metabolic rates should be fed often; it is important that such animals do not go for long periods (when they are active) without food.

Keepers should “police” their area as part of the daily routine, especially on crowded days, to discourage visitors from feeding or harming animals, to remove harmful objects from cages, and to explain the policy of no-feeding if this is being abused. This check also provides the Keeper with a chance to observe the animals.

In addition to the morning check, the Keeper should routinely check all the animals in his area before leaving at the end of the shift, to ensure that:

  • all animals are alive, well, and accounted for (count them).
  • all exhibits were cleaned and are free from harmful foreign objects.
  • all animals have been properly fed and watered (including adequate overnight supplies where necessary).
  • doors are properly closed and locked.
  • all lighting and temperature control equipment is properly adjusted and that adequate provision has been made for weather conditions.

Important information should be entered into the record system at the end of the work day or shift. A Keeper’s notebook is handy for jotting down information during the day so that it can be transferred to the day or area book and the Keeper Observation Report. Additional information for the next shift should be provided using the blackboards, notes and reports.

When working in an area, a new Keeper should stay with the person instructing him and follow all instructions. Do not run in or around any animal exhibit. The Keeper is in control of his animals, and this contact can be lost or destroyed unless orders are followed.

Wherever there are two or more Keepers in an area never change anything unless at least two people agree. Change can be disruptive to the animals; stick to your routine and only make changes by agreement with the other Keepers involved.

Try to work out effective compromises for the animal’s benefit, not just the Keepers.

Routines must be flexible to allow for unexpected accidents or injuries to be treated and for additional work that disrupts schedules. Routines help provide the animal with a sense of security and can be a self-checking practice for the Keeper.





There are a number of different ways to clean cages, using both wet and dry methods. Cleaning removes the causes of disease and infection, rotting food, fecal matter, mould, etc. It also helps meet the aesthetic needs implicit in public viewing. Cleaning also helps lessen odors and “offensive” smells.

Cleaning usually takes place in an empty exhibit; if the Keeper is working in an exhibit or holding area where animals are present, extra care must be taken not to upset the animals or place the Keeper in a dangerous situation.




Certain procedures should be followed when entering a cage already containing an animal. If the animal can be moved to another cage without stress, then this is preferable to subjecting it to the stress of being in the same cage at the same time as the Keeper.

If the cage is occupied, the Keeper should never move immediately to the center; keep to the edges or perimeter of the enclosure and don’t crowd the animal. Give it as much space as possible while you work or clean. Move to the center part of the cage for cleaning last, once the animal has become used to your presence, and will better tolerate you coming closer. Don’t shout, gesticulate or make any abrupt movements. Watch the animal using peripheral or direction vision, whichever is best for the species involved.





Don’t waste water; when not using the hose, turn it off. Dirt, feces, food and other matter can be loosened by first spraying it with water, and leaving it to soften. Wasted water is money down the drain.  Keep the hoses away from the cages.  Many cats will reach out for it and then bite it full of holes.  Don’t pull the hoses if you cannot see what is holding them back.  Too much pressure will cause them to snap off at the base and then the water must be shut down in the entire park until it can be fixed.

If you are cleaning walls, start from the bottom and work up so that you don’t leave stain marks from cleaning agents on the walls. Make sure all surfaces are rinsed free of cleaning agents when you clean a cage. Bleach or disinfectant can burn animal’s flesh.

When dry cleaning try to avoid creating unnecessary dust – many animals (especially birds) are susceptible to respiratory illness and infection caused by dust. If you are raking hills, where possible rake along contours or uphill. Raking down hill eventually wears down the hill. In aviaries and other sandy areas, don’t rake towards the door, rake back into the exhibit or sand build-up will prevent the door from being closed. Some Keepers like rake marks in the sand, others prefer to sweep lightly over the rake marks with a broom. Either method is preferable to a row of boot prints.

Don’t overload your wheelbarrow; fill it only to a level you can comfortably manage. Tamp down material on the barrow before moving it. Rake in the direction of the wind where possible to avoid making extra work. Clean-up after yourself; once you have moved the bedding, clean up the debris. Keep your service areas and garbage dump areas clean.

Dry bedding is important – don’t just add dry material, remove wet bedding first.

Remember (in winter especially) it may be better to have a dry, dirty cage than a clean, wet one. The Zoo is not a hospital; the cleaning levels required are those acceptable to the Zoo Management, the animals’ needs,  and the conditions at the time.

Learn to clean properly – don’t clean in a sloppy, dirty manner, or use more tools than are necessary. Make sure you clean stall corners and don’t forget, cob webs belong to Keepers – look up when you are cleaning.

Spot cleaning an exhibit can sometimes be as effective as a total cleaning. It may be better to clean-up feces, etc. but leave one rock uncleaned for marking, to provide the animal with a familiar smell. Cleaning can be considered with reference to the size of an animal’s normal living area in the wild state. If it has a large territory then it probably has minimal contact with its own feces; animals in small spaces are much more likely to come across their own wastes during their daily activities.

Cleaning can also be considered from the point of view of the animal’s cycle. For example the cage may be given regular cleaning for one reproductive cycle of the animal, and then cleaned extensively.

When cleaning up feces, look under leaves, etc. Some animals hide their excrement. Move substrate material around to air it. Pick up the feces with a shovel or scoop; also remove some of the contaminated substrate from underneath the feces. Try to pick up all fecal matter before you rake or sweep the exhibit, to avoid spreading excrement. Some parasite ova have a very long life and you could spread eggs, etc. around the exhibit.




Different materials are used at Big Cat Rescue to provide bedding and substrates for cage and exhibit floors. In inside exhibits almost every kind of material may be used: concrete, earth, clay, bark or wood chips, wood mulch, sand of different grades, large gravel, biturninized surface (for water ponds), pine needles, clay pellets, peat moss, sphagnum moss, etc. DO NOT USE HAY OR STRAW. There have been two cases of cats cholicking, like a horse would, from ingesting hay, so it is not reccomended for bedding for exotic cats. The substrates are chosen as best suitable based on water-retaining abilities (or lack), their aesthetic appearance, the fact that some are sterile, or to provide burrowing or digging areas for some animals. Concrete, rock or hard earth may be necessary to provide claw wear.

Check fill dirt, especially outside, on a daily basis to find items working their way to the surface.

Sometimes animals require various nesting materials for lining nest boxes or making nests. Quantities of the appropriate material should be added when necessary and can be collected throughout the year (dry grass and dry leaves, for instance) and stored.




In some areas of the Sanctuary we use hot beds in winter as a means of providing a warm surface and bedding for the animals in outside enclosures.  Check these regularly to be sure they are working properly, are not overheating and that the power supply cords are intact and out of the reach of the animals.




Proper use of tools and equipment makes the Keeper’s work easier and more acceptable; it can save much time and unnecessary labour.

Each work area usually has one or more places where the tools and kept. Make sure you return tools to the proper place for storage when not in use. Don’t take more tools than you need into an exhibit to clean; it is easy to leave one behind when you have finished, so always check the exhibit when you have finished for rakes, shovels, brooms, etc. before you let animals back in.

Use the proper tool for the job; square-mouthed shovels are not suitable for digging.

Don’t overload your wheelbarrow – only put in as much as you can comfortably carry. Before moving the wheelbarrow, tamp down the load, to compact it; you will lose less material off the barrow if you do this and save time and effort when cleaning up.

Don’t use corn brooms in water – they quickly rot and soon lose their bristles. Use a stable (yard) broom or leaf rake.

When cleaning, try to have a routine which you follow, rather than a haphazard cleaning of an exhibit. Account for all your tools when you leave an area, make sure they are all in their proper places.

Remember that tools which you are using in an exhibit occupied by animals may elicit an attack or a reaction. Some hoof stock, for example, may react to your rake as though it was a set of antlers or horns. Don’t poke at animals with tools.

When you are lifting (wheelbarrows, shovel loads) bend the knees, not the back.

Keep your equipment in good order. Tools are kept clean for a reason, not just so they look nice. Hygiene and longer tool life are both better served by well kept, properly stored tools. Linseed oil and turpentine on the handles of tools make them smoother and less likely to splinter.

When tools are properly stored, other Keepers know where they are and don’t waste time hunting for them.

Hang brooms to dry. Rakes and shovels should be washed after use and hung up out of the way. Periodic oiling of all metal tools increases life; grease your wheelbarrow axle as a part of your routine.

Always keep your tools stored neatly; treat them as though they were your own. Tools cost the Refuge a lot of money – don’t misuse them.

Tools and equipment left lying around are dangerous – people may trip over them. Keep your wheelbarrow and buckets clean and stand them up out of the way to dry.

Remember that pitch forks and bale hooks are potentially dangerous and always use them with care. Never swing a bale hook towards your body or legs, always off to one side.

A clean exhibit can be spoiled if the area around it isn’t clean and tidy. Keep your hoses neatly coiled out of the way, and all tools hung in their proper place where they won’t impede passage, especially in areas without much space.  Place all bagged trash in containers and secure the lids.

Oil locks, door hinges and sliding bolts and pulleys. It is a good idea to establish a regular routine for this job, say once a month, so that it becomes another work habit.

Try to keep your garbage storage areas as tidy as possible. Clean up around garbage containers, wash and disinfect your garbage cans regularly.

Money which the Sanctuary  spends on tools, equipment, uniforms etc. isn’t available for use in other areas. If you are working in water, wear rubber boots. Leather boots should be regularly treated with a waterproofing compound if they are to last any length of time.Restraint and safety equipment is also the Keeper’s responsibility; all equipment should be kept in good condition and properly stored in easily accessible places. Make sure you are familiar with the equipment and where it is kept -someone’s life may depend on it.




Extra care in Keeping is necessary during the sometimes very hot summer temperatures.

Keepers should make sure that animals have adequate shade where necessary. Remember that some animals, such as light coloured animals have sensitive skin liable to sunburn.

Make sure adequate clean water is available and replenish as needed. Animals may consume more water than normal during especially hot weather.

Very hot summer days may necessitate changes in the feeding schedule. Be aware that meat may quickly spoil or become flyb1own in the heat; it is better to feed smaller amounts more often to avoid this problem, rather than feeding all the food at once. The cats are fed at dusk to eliminate this problem.  Other mixed, moist food, or cut fruit, etc. may spoil rapidly in hot weather; gelatin melts in the sun. Sometimes wild animals will steal food unless small quantities are fed (e.g. rats stealing food).

Keepers should also consider their own health and safety during very hot weather; wear a hat if you are working in the sun and protect your neck; both habits will help prevent sunstroke. Cover your skin if you are susceptible to sunburn. Drink plenty of liquids to replace those lost through sweating. Adjust your routines to do heavy outdoor work in the cool of the morning or late afternoon, rather than during the heat of the day.  Wear mosquito repellant if needed.  Watch for mosquitoes on the animals and log it on the Observation Chart.

Remove algae on a regular basis to prevent a major build up and a slippery safety hazard.


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