Why did you choose CSU?Originally I had intended on only completing my core classes at CSU. It was a smaller college, close to home (so I could commute), and I felt that I would excel better in smaller classroom sizes. Afterwards, I was planning on transferring to UGA for a B.S. in Wildlife Management. CSU has a great Biology program, even though at the time it was not ideal for someone interested in pursuing a wildlife-related career. As luck turned out, I did not end up transferring to UGA, but decided to finish my Bachelor's degree in Biology at CSU. I felt that having an undergraduate degree in a broad field like Biology would give me more options - I wasn't sure what aspect of wildlife management I wanted to set my roots in.
How did your education at CSU prepare you for what you are doing today?CSU's Biology program is FANTASTIC if you're interested in going into research. My ability to understand peer-reviewed articles, use my critical-thinking skills, and approach life with an open-minded, scientific perspective were all nurtured at CSU. Through Dr. Kodani's research internship, I gained a lot of knowledge and valuable hands-on experience that ended up helping me greatly at Zoo Atlanta. But I was interested in taking more wildlife-related courses to see what my career options were, and at the time CSU did not have many options for me. So, I became a transient student and took a few classes at GA State University. It was there that I was able to get my foot in the door at Zoo Atlanta. With my research experience behind my belt, I was able to secure an internship at Zoo Atlanta which later put me in a great position to get hired on as a full-time keeper.
What advice do you have for CSU students interested in pursuing your career path?I had no desire to become a zookeeper at first. It's hard work, and the pay is nothing to write home about. But the opportunity to care for and form relationships with the wild animals in my care, and the chance to share my knowledge of wildlife conservation with the public has been the most rewarding experience of my life. No one is a zookeeper for the glam or money; they're a zookeeper because of their passion to protect, conserve, and educate about the importance of wildlife and nature. Thus, it's one of those fields where the employees are genuinely happy, and competition for paid positions is intense! So if anyone is interested in becoming a zookeeper, my best advice is to start early, and network! Zoos want the educational background (at least a 4-year degree in some animal-related field) and hands-on experience. It's very hard to get a paid position with only one of those criteria under your belt. The best way to get experience is through volunteering, internships, and any paid position you can get your hands on (even if it's not with the type of critters you want to work with).
Would you like to share a funny story from your journey to become a zookeeper?Zookeepers are pretty much the "jack-of-all-trades". No two days are ever the same. I remember when our first set of twin giant pandas (Mei Lun & Mei Huan) were old enough to go on exhibit. I received a call from our Multimedia department requesting some pictures of the twins on exhibit in our indoor, air-conditioned dayrooms. The twins were young, clumsy, and took forever to get from point A to point B. So, either mom Lun Lun helped to carry them onto exhibit, or we keepers did. For this photo shoot, my coworker and I carried the girls into the dayroom (mom Lun Lun was off-exhibit chowing down on her breakfast) and plopped the little fuzz-balls on the ground, side-by-side, in front of the window so the photographer could get his shots. Well, the girls had other plans. They were in very playful moods. "Chasing" their keepers who were trying to stay out of the camera's view was much, much more fun than sitting there looking cute. So, as soon as we would set them down, we'd try to quickly hop out of the picture before the girls moved. The girls made a game of immediately turning and "chasing" us down (seeing a baby panda run is probably the most ridiculously adorable thing to witness). After several attempts to get the girls to stay put, we ended up changing our tactics and starting running back and forth in front of the camera. As we got out of the shot, the girls would come barreling by, giving the photographer the ability to snap some "action" shots. It wasn't what we had originally planned on, but zookeepers are very quick to get creative with changing situations. We never force any animal to do something it doesn't want to do. So if the girls were more interested in "chasing" the keepers, we used it to our advantage! Those 30 minutes of my work day were very entertaining, and not something one would normally define as "work".
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