Sunday, September 20, 2015

Advice about working at a zoo from a recent Ashland biology graduate

A number of our current students and recent graduates have been getting experience as interpreters and in animal care at local zoos and wildlife centers.  Mallory Balmert (Biology '15) sent in this guest post about her experiences over the past few years at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and her current internship at the Toledo Zoo.  Mallory gives great advice for students wanting to work in zoos and writes about her current work with polar bears, wolves and seals.

I’m in the exercise yard with Foster, 
a parma wallaby. These are the smallest, 
most nocturnal species of wallaby.
    This summer, and for the past two summers before that, I was a pirate…well, sometimes. I worked as a seasonal on show staff in the education department at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and we had a pirate-themed show these past few summers. That sounds complicated, but basically, show staff is responsible for taking care of all of the animals in the education department, putting on live animal shows three times a day in two different areas during the summers, doing travelling shows and outreach programs in the off-season (not Memorial Day-Labor Day in the northern zoo world) and training all of the animals for those shows/programs. My official job title was Education Assistant, then it changed to Zoo Interpreter, which neither of those titles gives an accurate description of the actual job, which I’m sure sounds pretty busy right about now. Hands down, I loved my job even though it was hectic a lot of the time. It was great experience learning the principles of animal training through operant conditioning, acquiring public speaking skills, and also learning the basics of animal care and handling. One of the most surprising things was seeing the progression and my comfort-level increase when speaking in front of crowds. I went from being very anxious when giving presentations to being able to speak in front of 200 random zoo guests for 25 minutes while handling live animals throughout the program and (in a different show) putting on a pretty mean pirate voice, if I do say so myself. Talk about improvement. I find myself now actively trying to refrain from talking to guests and offering fun facts when I’m just visiting the zoo (not as an employee).
     I got to work with a lot of amazing animals including (but not limited to) two fennec fox brothers, a 14 foot long Burmese python, a super smart white-necked raven, several feisty parrots, a grumpy but still sweet hooded vulture, and a very loveable white stork. Overall, we had about 65 different species in the education collection spanning three different areas at the zoo including birds, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates, and reptiles. So you must be thinking now: how did you ever stumble upon a job like this? Well, my sophomore year at AU over fall break, I decided to do a program at CMZ called Keeper for a Day as a birthday present. It is in the education department and you get to shadow a member of show staff for the day, help prep diets, help clean, and make enrichment for the animals. Not to mention all the behind-the-scenes tours since none of the education collection is on exhibit currently. During my day doing this program, I started telling the keeper, Katie, that I wanted to be a keeper, and she told me that they had seasonal positions open, she gave me her email and told me to send her my resume so she could forward it to her boss. Who knew that my birthday present would lead to my first job? The next spring I was coming in for an interview, and the following May I started on show staff and Katie was now my coworker. So fast forward three years to where I’ve been a pirate more times than I can count, been through numerous crazy situations during shows when something unexpected happens and you have to correct on-the-fly, helped train some really awesome behaviors for shows, and made so many great friends at CMZ, and now I am currently starting an internship at the Toledo Zoo. One of the things about this field is that you need lots of experience in lots of different institutions, so here I am, currently in the middle of my second week as in intern in the Arctic Encounter® area of the Toledo Zoo working on polar bear enrichment for our three bears, collecting data on the social interactions of our four grey wolves, and doing seal training for the six seals (2 harbor seals and 4 greys) that call Toledo Zoo home. I can say it’s very different in many aspects from my show staff experience, but I’ve learned a ton already and I really am enjoying the internship so far. There are many opportunities out there that will provide diverse experiences in this field, and I am looking forward to gaining those experiences and seeing what the zoo world can offer, because so far, it’s been a blast.
Me, as a pirate, with our barn owl Tawny

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