How did ZooFit become ZooFit? Why do I call it ZooFit? It’s story time, folks. Who doesn’t love a good origin story?
The day was January 4, 2015. I eagerly offered to do the afternoon keeper chat. Since talking to the public was not a particular favorite of the other keepers at the elephant barn, my co-workers eagerly obliged.
I was particularly excited for the talk. I had an idea I wanted to share with zoo visitors, and it was the perfect day to try.
At 2:00, I brought in Bamboo, to the delight of a dozen zoo visitors. She rummaged through her pine tree enrichment, while I shared some interesting facts about elephants.
Keeper chats are informal presentations where guests get a chance to observe the animals up-close during a feeding, enrichment, or training session. It allows us to spread great conservation messages and connect the audience to our animals, and allows visitors to get any questions they have answered.
I timed Bamboo’s enrichment pine perfectly with my introduction to elephants. I just finished when she waltzed over and began blowing at my back, her tell-tale sign she wanted something. This time, I knew what she wanted. The orange in my pocket.
“Friends, let me personally introduce you all to Bamboo, our eldest elephant of the herd. She’s fifty-years old, but don’t tell her that. She still thinks she’s twenty-five. And she certainly acts like it.” Bamboo blew at me again, reaching her trunk out to increase her effectiveness.
“I have a special treat for Bamboo.” I pulled out the orange. “Bamboo absolutely loves oranges. But she is a little more particular about enjoying her oranges than our other elephants. There’s one part to the orange she doesn’t particularly like.
“Now, if I gave this orange to another elephant, they would just eat the whole thing, rind and all. But Bamboo is special, and she’s going to show for you all just how much dexterity her trunk is.
“Bamboo is going to peel her orange with her trunk.”
With that, I gave Bamboo her treat, and she immediately followed through on my promise to peel. I commentated while she worked at the task.
First, Bamboo needed a spot to start peeling. So, she took the orange and wrapped her trunk around it, gently squeezing it until it popped just a little. With this opening, Bamboo used the tip of her trunk as a finger to scrape the peel away from the fruit.
In front of her admirers, Bamboo completed her task in under a minute. Then she politely deposited her whole peel, which was in one piece, into my hand. The crowd cheered. I passed the peel around for the kids to see how good of a job Bamboo did, and told them how she was able to do that.
“Elephants have over 50,000 muscles in their trunk structure alone. We have only 700 in our entire body. It doesn’t discredit her natural talent, but exemplifies it.”
My audience was sold. Bamboo was the most magnificent creature they had ever met. Now, it was time for the hook.
Many people argue that zoos don’t do enough to educate their visitors. That the sole purpose of having animals in captivity is to entertain us. I know this isn’t true. And this day was the perfect example.
The reason Woodland Park Zoo had elephants was to inspire the community to conserve elephants in their natural environment. Sure, I could tell people to save elephants until I was blue in the face. But having Bamboo there, having her peel that freaking orange in front of their eyes, that my friends, connected humans to the entire species in a way I could never achieve on my own.
So, when I transitioned to my conservation message, I maintained the connection these guests had just established with Bamboo. I asked a simple question to start out.
“How many of you made new years resolutions?” Nearly everyone raised their hand.
“How many of you made the resolution to save or protect elephants?” I asked to make a point, but I didn’t expect so many of them to look guilty and despondent.
“Oh, goodness, I’m sorry. That’s perfectly okay if you didn’t. How many of you made resolutions to eat better or eat healthier this year?” Several hands went back up.
“What if I told you that by eating healthy, you could help save elephants?”
There are very few moments in my zoo career where I remember having such a profound and instant impact on visitors. With those words, I had every single person’s undivided attention. I could have told them the sky was green and grass was blue.
Instead, I told everyone about palm oil. I told them it was a key ingredient in nearly all processed and packaged foods. If they wanted to eliminate junk food from their diet, the best way to do it was to look at the ingredients and avoid anything with palm oil in it.
I told them why palm oil would help them and how it would help elephants. Farmed in southeast Asia, palm oil plantations can have a huge negative impact on wildlife, and the environment. Besides the carbon emissions entering our atmosphere from the slash and burn techniques of clearing the forest, animals lose their home, and their lives to make room for the cash crop. In fact, in Asia, the number one threat to orangutans is deforestation from the palm oil industry. Poaching is a secondary concern over the lethal methods farmers use to protect their crops from elephant raids.
Yes, I admitted, boycotting palm oil is not the best solution. Sustainability is the best answer to the palm oil crisis. But when you pair your health with that of the earth’s, it makes it very easy to resist temptation from foods we don’t need to eat. In fact, simply by eliminating that one ingredient from my diet, it helped me lose forty pounds in four months. If it worked for me, it could work for anyone.
The reaction from the audience was palpable. I have never received so many compliments in my life. Not about my achievement of losing weight. But about changing other peoples’ lives with such a short presentation.
It was that moment I knew I needed to share my experience and knowledge with the world. That was the moment ZooFit was born, even if it was just an idea at the time.
I call my program ZooFit because it started at the zoo, and the principles are inspired from zookeeper practices- animal training (operant conditioning, shaping, positive reinforcement), enrichment (toys and games), and conservation (eating green, experiencing nature). I wanted and needed to pay homage to the life which allowed me to get in the best shape of my life, and gave me the tools I needed to make an impact on people’s lives, and the planet.
With ZooFit, we eat clean, live green, and train positive. ZooFit promotes wildlife conservation through successful fitness. We connect to the earth in a healthy way.
What can ZooFit do for you?