One of the first lessons Ben Sutton gleaned in college came not in the classroom, but from the school of life: Be careful what you wish for.
After growing up on a farm in Seneca, Wis., his ardent desire had been “to get away from the animals and all that stuff.” His first year at La Crosse’s Viterbo University changed all that.
“When I got there, I was not sure what I wanted to do,” he said. “After a while, I realized I really honestly missed animal stuff.”
A decade and a half later, Sutton, 36, is the Minnesota Zoo’s reigning “Zookeeper of the Year” for his collaboration with leopards and tigers and bears (oh, my).
Sutton did forge one distinct path: He went from working with domestic livestock to animals that cannot be domesticated. His feral coterie includes not only big cats and bigger bears but also boars and wild dogs known as dholes. He works with carnivores on the Northern Trail and trains bears named Sadie, Kenai and Haines at Russia’s Grizzly Coast.
The St. Paul resident has become a bit attached. Asked about the worst part of his job, Sutton said, “We work with them every day of their lives, and they get sick and die. You do get connected. They’re certainly not pets, but it’s very hard when you lose an animal.”
Sutton had more to say about getting up close and “personal” with his non-human sidekicks.
Q: What is mastery? What makes an excellent trainer?
A: You don’t ever truly achieve that. Honestly, you just keep kind of learning. I started working with the hoof stock, then bears and leopards and tigers. You keep adding, and every day you learn something new. You have to know the species in general, have to know general behavior. Once you have that, you get to know the individual animal’s personality, like, this is what a typical bear does, but this is what these three bears do differently. You need to be willing to learn something new every day no matter what you’re doing. If you think you’re a master, you’re probably wrong.
Q: Do you train?
A: I should do more exercise [laughs]. … I try to do a lot of reading, learn from older keepers, talk to friends from school. And you learn from the animals. Most bear books you find are about bad hunting, but have interesting stuff about the bears.
Q: What are the best parts of the job?
A: Definitely the interactions with animals. Just when you think you have them figured out, they show you something new. Also the behind-the-scenes tours. In my job I get used to seeing [the animals] every day and don’t think of them as 900-pound bears. But you get a school class here and see through [the kids’] eyes how exciting it is to be 10 feet from a bear. It rekindles that sense of wonder.
Q: Are there sacrifices?
A: We’re open every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. And even when the zoo is not open, we have to come in. So we work weekends, we work holidays. I miss a lot of family get-togethers. I work Sundays, so I miss a lot of Packers games.
Q: Does the mastery help other parts of your life?
A: It’s helped a little bit with public speaking because the more you know about the topic, the more confident you get and the easier it is to do. When I started to do this, I didn’t expect to do as much talking. And I pick up more cues from animals. Maybe with people, I should pay attention to physical cues rather than what people are saying [laughs].
Q: What’s your ultimate goal?
A: I’m pretty happy with where I am right now. I’m not sure if I want to move up to a management position. The farther you move up the food chain, the less animal interaction you have.