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How to Understand Zoo Terminology

One of the things that makes it hard for visitors to a zoological facility to understand how things work is the fact that there's a lot of field-specific lingo - here's a glossary of common terms. 

How to understand zoo terminology

September 29, 2016 - Rachel Garner

One of the things that makes it hard for visitors to a zoological facility to understand how things work is the fact that there's a lot of field-specific lingo.  It's so commonplace to staff that sometimes it's hard for them to remember that those phrases and concepts need to be translated when talking to people who don't work in the field. That makes accurate communication pretty darn difficult, so here's a short glossary of terms.

This post will continue to update as more terms are suggested.


AZA: Association of Zoos and Aquariums, largest voluntary accreditation organization for zoos and aquariums in the US. Also accredits partner facilities that are sanctuary or researched based. Oversees all aspects of their facilities: animal care, education, business practices and more.

ZAA: Zoological Association of America, another voluntary accrediting organization for zoos and aquariums. Only deals with animal care and education aspects of facilities, does not get involved in business management.

(for more information on accreditations see How To Understand Zoo Accreditation)

SSP: Species Survival Plan. AZA’s conservation program started in the 1980’s to help ensure the survival of certain critically endangered species in human care with enough genetic diversity to support a healthy population.

TAG: Taxon Advisory Group. AZA’s larger committees that oversee the conservation and population management of an entire taxa of animals within their facilities.

AZA SAFE: AZA’s new collaborative conservation initiative, ‘Saving Animals From Extinction’. Goal is to increase funding for wild conservation projects and better management of endangered species in human care through use of community experts.

DART: Dangerous Animal Response Team. The group of specially trained staff that deal with animal escapes and other similar incidents that put staff, the public, or other animals in danger. 

General Terminology:

Public View: Anywhere the public can see from areas they are supposed to be in.

BTS: Behind the Scenes, private areas, not supposed to be in the public view from normal public access areas.

On Exhibit: In the public view; in an area specifically designed for the animal to be in the sight of the public. Also called 'on habitat'.

Off Exhibit: In back areas that are not open to the public or alternate exhibit yards. Also called 'off habitat'..

Secondary Containment: Backup barriers in case an animal or guest breaches one layer of fencing, prevents one from reaching the other.

Giving an animal ‘access’ to an an area: Allowing an animal the ability to choose which of its spaces to be in - letting the animal be able to move freely between off-exhibit areas and exhibit areas.

Exhibit Terminology:

Holding: A space for animals behind the scenes, often a temporary area they’re in while routine cleaning occurs.

Night house: The behind the scenes area where animals spend the night. Important because they make sure animals are safe and secure when staff are not on grounds to observe them. These always contain bedding, water, and enrichment. Animals are often given their evening diet when they go into the night house for the evening and then are fed on exhibit when they leave the night house so staff can clean it.

Shift: A passageway or tunnel between exhibit areas or between an exhibit and a night house.

Chute: a long area or shift that is often used to move larger animals longer distances onto exhibit, often single-file. Sometimes will contain a squeeze.

Squeeze: An area of a shift or chute that can be used to restrain animals for medical treatment or examination. A squeeze will be designed for a specific species or have adjustable walls to be sized for the appropriate animal - a squeeze area should just be large enough for the animal to stand comfortably. It generally has a door that closes in front of and behind the animals, and often has panels on the sides that can be opened to provide access to certain body parts (e.g. feet, shoulders, neck) while still keeping the animal from having enough room to move. Animals are trained to feel comfortable in squeezes, as they’re very important management tools for large animals such as elephants and giraffes.

Aquarium/Terrarium: An enclosed glass habitat for ectothermic organisms. Generally above-ground single-space enclosures sized appropriately for the animals living within. Referred to as aquariums for aquatic animals and terrariums for terrestrial animals. 

Pool: A large, below-ground or partially below-ground habitat for aquatic animals with an open top. Often connected to other pools or habitat areas. 

Show pool: A pool specifically designed for animals to do high-energy behaviors or waterworks, often for an audience. Will have less landscaping and visual aspects underwater for the safety of fast-moving animals and people. 

Med Pool: A small, shallow pool behind the scenes specifically for doing examinations and medical procedures on aquatic animals. Not an area animals ever live in for prolonged periods of time. May or may not contain a false bottom that allows vet staff to raise an aquatic animal out of the water for a time. 

Station: A specific spot an animal has been trained to go to. Often used as ‘their spot’ for training sessions or a way to keep an animal from interrupting an other animal’s training. This can be a specific item to sit/stand on or a point to stay at. 

Animal Management Terminology:

Free Contact: Staff work with animals with no barriers in place - this can be cleaning while in the enclosure with them or training sessions without a fence. Does not necessarily mean that the animals are touched by the staff while working with them.

Hot Animal: Also known as a dangerous animals. An animal with a higher potential for human injury during regular staff routine. Each facility designates their own dangerous animals - almost always all large primates, large cats and bears.

Protected Contact: Staff work with animals only with a barrier in place - animals are shifted off exhibit for cleaning and staff only do training sessions with a fence or wall. This does not mean animals are not touched or trained or that they do not build relationships with staff.

Shifting: Moving an animal between back areas and exhibit, or between back areas. 

Securing an animal: Making sure an animal is secure in an area/exhibit - all doors that could let it into other areas are closed and locked.

‘Catch up’ an animal: Catch an animal, e.g., put it under direct human control for medical procedures or evaluation. Can be done in multiple ways, including but not limited to trained crate-entering behaviors or with a net or head halter as appropriate.

‘Knock down’ an animal: Sedate the animal, most often through a dart or injection, in order to allow it to be examined by the vet.

Animal restraint: Restraining an animal physically.

Feed out: Give to an animal as their diet. E.g. “today we’re feeding out a combination of grapes and cucumbers.”

Training Terminology:

Reinforcer: The "paycheck" an animal gets for doing behaviors in training sessions. Is frequently but not limited to food - for certain animals things like toys, petting, and interactions can also be rewarding. 

Bridge: A sound that tells the animal being trained that it has done something correct and that a reinforcer is on the way. This prevents having to try to figure out how to get fish to a dolphin who is 20 feet away while it is mid-jump. Bridges can be whistles, clickers, or simply a specific word. 

Target: A specific thing an animal has been trained to touch with part of it's body as a 'target' behavior. Targets are often colored objects on sticks and are sized appropriately for the animal they're working with. The most common target behaviors are nose and paw targets, but can be trained with any body part.

Dry work: A trainer interacting with aquatic animals from completely outside of the water. This can be on a stage or the edge of a pool as well as completely outside of it. 

Shallows work: A trainer interacting with aquatic animals while partially in the water  at a depth where they are able to stand or sit comfortably. 

Water work: A trainer interacting with a cetacean or pinniped while fully immersed in the pool with them at a depth where they are swimming with the animal. 

Item Terminology:

Enrichment: Items given to animals to keep them stimulated and encourage them to engage in natural behaviors.

(For more information on enrichment, read How To Understand Zoo Animal Enrichment).

Boomer Ball: A large, hard plastic ball given as enrichment to big animals such as big cats, bears, and elephants.

Browse: Low-calorie vegetation for grazing animals to eat throughout the day as part of their regular diet. Generally presented as branches or chunks of small trees to encourage foraging behavior.

Bloodsicle: Chunks of ice with the juices from meat diets frozen into it given as enrichment for carnivores on hot days. Often will contain pieces of meat or other food enrichment items.

Jesses: Straps of leather attached to a band on a raptor’s legs that allow a falconer to retain control of a bird while it sits on the glove without actually having to hold onto it’s feet. They allow range of motion on the glove but prevent the bird from flying off.

Read More in this Series:

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Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.