set expectations

Set expectations others can achieve

Recently, my friend Maggie and I were talking about training in our team members and setting them up for success. As full-fledged staff members we want them to be able to balance efficiency, cleanliness, and welfare. So often however, they’re focused on the clock instead of the overall picture. Maggie had great insight on how to set expectations in a way that encouraged that balance. Here’s what she has to say on the topic.

The new kid

About ten years ago I was smack dab in a new state which felt like a new country. I was at a brand new facility learning the ropes. The person who trained me had me follow her around as she explained how she would clean different areas, or complete different tasks.

Every single time it always included a time limit.

  • “I clean the sloth building in 30 minutes.”
  • “I start this task at this time.”
  • “At this time, I should be in the kitchen prepping diets and I should be moving on to the next area at this time”.


Did she say that? Absolutely not. In fact, she was one of the most fantastic keepers I’ve ever met.

She has moved on to work with chimps.

Chimp keepers, I’m convinced of two things:

1. You are top tier keepers. I can’t imagine working with animals as complex as chimps. You need to pay attention to every detail, every move, everything on exhibit, you have to be your best at all times.

2. You have to be crazy. 

HER routine

How could she be so focused on time? She was paying attention to the animals, the enclosures, the enrichment, the nutrition, the cleaning, the tools, the locks, the training. Well…she had been there for years. She had created a routine that worked for her and she was trying to teach me HER routine.

HER schedule. But my newbie brain couldn’t process all of that information. All I heard was I need to be running at warp speed at all times or I will fail. 


This grave critical thinking mistake made me rush and have my first animal disaster. I let a baboon out. We looked at each other. Screamed and then she was gone. I messed up. I was rushing and didn’t check my locks while cleaning and she, poof, disappeared. We did find her five minutes later and she went right home, but I was already deceased from my heart attack.

Recently, I was chatting with my network and we all started discussing how we could empower, improve, and develop our keepers to make them unstoppable. How do we get them to see the things that we see? How do we lessen their stress? I went back to Chloe the baboon and I asked: Are we training them to do a routine for a time or for the actual animals?

Animal time

My favorite saying at my last job was “We don’t work around our schedules, we work around the animals schedule”. We are employed for the animals. We are responsible for giving them everything they need and more. Animal care doesn’t come with a stopwatch.

This reframed how I trained people. Instead of saying “This task should take you 30 min” I’d say “When you are entering this area, ABC needs to be complete and this is my expectation.” This would go on until I had explained everything about their routine. Then I would be patient. I’d give people some time to acclimate and then I’d ask how they were feeling about how much time they were spending in each area.

Set expectations

Then I’d have THEM break down their own time schedules and critically think about if B needs to be done in that moment, can we move on, can it wait a day, etc. (sometimes with some gentle or unstoppable coaching). What was the motivation? Get all these tasks done, and there is more time for enrichment, training, records, pizza, the world is at your fingertips!

Training people is a lot like training animals. Time tables can put us in fight or flight but if you give people the right motivation you’ll find you’re completing your behaviors (or routines) in record time! Set expectations that are achievable. You just have to come up with a solid training plan!

Maggie Morse – Animal Curator Lehigh Valley Zoo

For more on time management and balance check out our podcast on cleaning!

Check out more from Maggie and I here! We did a live session for our Beyond Animal Training Course so you can see what it’s like!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow by Email