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Zoo Internships: An Unlikely Journey

Guest blogger: Sarah Lang, Zoo Intern

You can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. It’s the classic conundrum everyone is facing as they emerge from college dorm cocoons and are stretching their new adult wings. As if that isn’t hard enough, the animal field is incredibly challenging to break into. Don’t worry; there is a way it can be done. It’s a hard, long road. There will be lots of obstacles that look unsurpassable. You may need to take detours to get where you want to go. Don’t be discouraged. If this is what you love, then it will be worth it. The first path I took was the path of internships.

Sarah with Harley, a blue and gold macaw in the Zoo's interpretive collection

Sarah with Harley, a blue and gold macaw in the Zoo’s interpretive collection

I did my undergraduate at Berea College, majoring in Ethology (animal behavior) and Theater, minoring in Film and Philosophy – an interesting spectrum of hodgepodge skills. The dream job is to educate through entertainment–that means animal shows, documentaries, or even a traveling circus to let my mother know the classical education she got me has not gone to waste. During my last semester at Berea, I started my first internship here at the Zoo. That introduced me to the Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University’s Project Dragonfly, which is a graduate program based at certain institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums such as Cincinnati Zoo. I was accepted and only have one year left in the program at this point. Hopefully after my Masters, I can get my Ph.D. in Neuroethology of Metatherian Cognition, but you can imagine how large the market is for that. The internships are like stepping stones: get your foot in the door, the basics of how to educate within a zoo, the basics for visitor engagement and outreach, the basics for animal husbandry, the basics for animal showmanship, get a seasonal/temporary keeper position in an animal show, get a full-time benefitted position, develop own animal show, inspire and change the world. That’s not too hard, right?

Sarah with the Interpretive Team

Sarah with the Interpretive Team

I’ve done three internships at the Cincinnati Zoo so far, and there has been a distinct evolution in just a short time. Internships that were once seen as full-time free labor have transformed into what internships were intended to be–immersion with education. I’ve done an internship where I worked 24 hours a week, commuted between the Zoo and school at Berea College two hours away each week, and worked with supervisors to help me meet up with certain people to talk about certain topics for my capstone. I’ve done an internship where I was working 40 hours a week, and if you wanted to do anything special like a behind-the-scenes tour, you set it up yourself by talking to other interns or boldly asking a keeper in a different department. And then they reworked the internship program. Now there is a new lesson to be learned every week. You may be working the 40-hour week, but lectures have been set up to let you meet and hear about what goes on throughout the entire Zoo.

Sarah with Moe, the two-toed sloth

Sarah with Moe, the two-toed sloth

We had lectures with Lyn Lutz about browse. We heard from Deb Zureick about the history of the Zoo. We learned about operant conditioning with Amanda Chambers. Dr. Greg Levens showed us tidbits about veterinary medicine in zoos. Cecil Jackson showed us about elephant foot care and introduced us to the elephants themselves. We talked about nutrition with Barbara Henry. We listened to how keepers came to be here at the Zoo with us, and what they did and still do that allows them to bring special perspectives. Not only that, but we did things that they didn’t even warn you about in school. Molly Szabo showed us things like resume building and what zoos look for in your representational piece of paper. We even had mock interviews with our curators.

2015 summer interns with the elephants and keeper, Cecil Jackson

2015 summer interns with the elephants and keeper, Cecil Jackson

It isn’t just a work horse gig anymore. It’s an introduction into the field. A taste of what is to come, or what will discourage. I can’t say it was all sunshine and giggles though. It is working 40 hours a week in Cincinnati weather–heat, humidity, freezing ice storms, all of it. It’s working with the public, even if you are behind the scenes; they will ask you anything and everything. It’s working for love and not pay, and trying to figure out how you will pay for school and bills. It’s smiling and being kind even when you are sick and exhausted because you never know who you are talking to. It’s trying to learn procedures, time management, and skills as quickly as possible and being corrected. It’s being happy for someone who started with you in the same place and who might be further ahead. It’s being okay with sitting in rush hour traffic, sweaty and covered in fecal matter at the end of the day after your deodorant has worn off, and people still expect you to go out and have a social life. But it’s also working in a field you love. It’s getting your foot in the door. It’s getting a taste of what you want to do with the rest of your life. It’s making connections with people, hearing their stories, learning from their journey, and making incredible and memorable friendships. It’s making memories and having experiences you would never imagine having done before. It’s creating an adventure for yourself and those around every day you step on grounds. It’s conveying knowledge to peers and to guests, sharing facts and information to understand the way things are and why they are that way. It’s inspiring a call to conserving nature and appreciation of the world around us through respect and thoughtfulness, because this planet, this life is a truly beautiful one. It’s serving those around you because we are all connected through our numerous communities.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

Sarah with Sassafras, the screech owl

Sarah with Sassafras, the screech owl

I have to admit it is hard, and it might take a while. But this is the path I have chosen and it is going to be worth it. If it wasn’t worth it, I wouldn’t have done it so many times, and I would keep doing it. As I continue my journey through life, it is a path worth remembering and that will make all the difference. So I’m letting my wings dry, because I look forward to the greener pastures that lie ahead.

August 31, 2015   No Comments

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-based Conservation in Kenya – Part V (Final)

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fifth and final post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Day 8:

Today was Community Day! Following a wrap-up of the ecological monitoring projects and our last group discussion on balancing human land use and conservation in the morning, the afternoon brought us a special treat. Students from various local schools were transported to Lale’enok Resource Centre for a cultural day. Other community members, including Maasai elders and members of the Women’s Group, came to partake in the festivities as well. The students presented on the theme of “Water is Life” in the form of traditional song, dance, poetry and debate. They even invited us to join them in some of the dancing.

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

I had prepared the Earth Expeditions group that they might want to come up with a presentation of their own. In years past, groups ended up singing silly songs like the Hokey Pokey. This year, one of the students, Jen, brought the idea of doing the BioBlitz Dance. The Bioblitz Dance was originally created for National Geographic’s Bioblitz Event and is a celebration of the outdoors, human diversity and biodiversity, and national parks. I’m not sure it was any less silly than the Hokey Pokey, but at least it had a connection to people and wildlife. The best thing it did was break down barriers between the local community and our students, make everyone laugh and smile, and allowed us to do something in return.

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz dance. I believe this move is called "the turkey vulture". (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz Dance. I believe this move is called “the turkey vulture”. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Later that afternoon once the students had departed, we had the chance to mingle and have small group conversations with the community members. No topic was off limits, and they were just as curious about us and our culture as we were about theirs. We talked about marriage, family and more. Everyone was so open and friendly.

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon, we all moved to the campfire for a traditional Maasai dinner featuring fire-roasted goat. There was much more conversation, singing, dancing and star gazing before heading to our tents for the night.

Day 9:

Our last full day in the South Rift began with an early morning walk just after sunrise to a ravine overlooking the river. We walked down to the riverbank and spent some time hanging out and reflecting on all the wonderful experiences we’d had so far. On the way back, a lone hyena burst out of the bush just ahead of us and booked it across the dirt road. Amazing!

Ewaso Ng'iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Ewaso Ng’iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We finished up the last of our coursework with a discussion about what the students planned to do for their Inquiry Action Projects once we returned home and how it fit into their Master Plans for those in the graduate program.

Then it was time to shop! Another way we can support the community and their conservation efforts is to support their livelihoods. As a group, we had the chance to purchase a variety of hand-crafted jewelry, belts, shukas (colorful cloths) and more directly from the women who made them.

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

At the Zoo, we have created a Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets program. More than 200 local Maasai women showed up to sell us bracelets made in a particular design to symbolize the coexistence of people and wildlife. Each color represents an integral component: red stands for lions, black for the Maasai people, blue for peace and white for clarity. Guests can then purchase these bracelets back at the Zoo. Revenue goes back to the Olkirimatian Women’s Group to provide tuition for local school girls and contribute to the operation of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We spent our last evening having a sundowner with the Lale’enok staff on top of a hill overlooking the South Rift and Mount Shompole. There were plenty of laughs, hugs and pictures as we said our farewells. It was a fantastic, life-changing expedition that no one will soon forget.

August 27, 2015   No Comments

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-Based Conservation in Kenya – Part IV

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fourth post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Days 5-7:

In addition to working alongside the researchers and staff at the Lale’enok Resource Centre, we also took part in some other amazing activities.

Open Inquiries and Group Discussions

Core to the mission of Earth Expeditions is inquiry. Following the QUEST model of inquiry promoted by Project Dragonfly, the students split up into small groups to conduct their own scientific investigations. Some of the creative comparative questions they asked included looking at whether there was greater terrestrial invertebrate species richness close to or farther from the river and whether DEET or dirt worked better as a bug repellent. The students also led a group discussion on community-based conservation.

Jamie and Ruth Anne tally how many different types of invertebrates they find along a transect. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jamie and Ruth Anne tally how many different types of invertebrates they find along a transect. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jill and Kirstie report on their dirt vs DEET investigation. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jill and Kirstie report on their dirt vs DEET investigation. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Game Drives

Each day, about an hour or so before sunset, we would split up into the three cruisers and head out to look for wildlife on a game drive through the Olkirimatian and Shompole conservancies. While driving through Amboseli National Park earlier in the week was amazing, seeing an abundance of diverse wildlife—from zebras to bat-eared foxes to giraffes— living here on Maasai land was even more compelling.

Seeing giraffe on a game drive (Photo: Jill Bailey)

Seeing giraffe on a game drive (Photo: Jill Bailey)

At one point, our guide, Patrick, stopped to cut small branches off of a Salvadora bush. Using a knife, he pared down one end of each twig and passed them out. We chewed the ends until the fibers separated, creating a brush and then brushed our teeth with it the way the Maasai do.

Brian brushes his teeth with a Salvadora twig (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Brian brushes his teeth with a Salvadora twig (Photo: Shasta Bray)

The most exciting moment had to be when my cruiser came upon a young lion laying in the middle of the dirt road just after sunset, and this happened not long after we had to stop to change a flat tire in the bush!

Oh no! A flat tire! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Oh no! A flat tire! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai Boma Visit

One late afternoon, instead of heading out on a typical game drive, we were invited to visit with a Maasai family at their boma. When we arrived, the woman and her two young girls greeted us and showed us around.

Two beautiful young Maasai girls (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Two beautiful young Maasai girls (Photo: Shasta Bray)

As it neared sunset, we joined the herder as he brought his cattle home. In fact, he handed over the herding stick and a few of the students took over. Apparently, herding cattle is much harder than it looks! It was quite comical to watch the students try to keep the cows all moving in the right direction at the right pace.

Brian, Kirstie and Alex try to herd cattle  (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Brian, Kirstie and Alex try to herd cattle (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Once the cattle were finally in their corral, the woman then showed us how she milks the cows. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble we’d have if she’d asked us to give that a try!

Maasai woman milks a cow (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Maasai woman milks a cow (Photo: Shasta Bray)

To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!

August 20, 2015   2 Comments