When people think of careers where they have the opportunity to work with animals, they might think of a zookeeper, veterinarian, marine biologist, or farmer. I had no interest in those careers because I wanted to be a teacher, but I still wanted to work with animals. I was able to fulfill my dream of being an educator, while working with and taking care of a variety of domestic and exotic animals. I was employed at a major metropolitan zoo for several years as both a part-time and later full-time staff member. While working at the zoo, I taught students at in-zoo programs, outreach programs, birthday parties, summer camps, and more. When I became a full-time employee, my responsibilities grew to include animal care, in addition to handling animals for educational lessons and experiences.

In my role as a classroom educator, I helped take care of the reptiles and amphibians used for classes and programs to educate 2-year-olds and up. On a daily basis, my colleagues and I would check for cages that needed to be cleaned and see if snakes were getting ready to shed their skins, as well as monitor the overall health of our education collection. Is the blue-tongued skink lethargic? Has the radiated tortoise eaten her food? Do we have an explosion of hissing cockroach babies? Some areas that needed cleaning and care daily were the turtle and tortoise habitat and the tank that housed two young alligators. We would also monitor feeding habits and health and administer medicine when deemed necessary by the veterinary staff. Everyone worked together to ensure that the animals were healthy so we could use them to educate people of all ages.

In the classroom, I would teach visiting school kids about reptiles, habitats, colors, adaptation, food chains, and more during the week. Every forty-five minutes, a new class from an elementary, middle, or high school would enter my classroom. I would use artifacts like an animal pelt or skull, live animals, and other props to teach them the objectives of our lessons.

One of my favorite classes to teach was about colors, which was geared towards children in kindergarten, first, and second grade. We would focus on camouflage and mimicry—as well as identifying colors, spots, stripes, etc. This meant we could show children a milk snake to compare it to the venomous coral snake, show them a rabbit to discuss the camouflage of prey animals, as well as demonstrate how the light and dark colors of sea turtles help them hide in the ocean. For the All About Colors class, I might present a bull snake to compare to a rattlesnake or a macaw to examine the colors of a rainforest. Animals were used a maximum of three days per week to help prevent them from being stressed.

In addition to the reptiles and amphibians, I also handled and worked with parrots, chickens, ferrets, opossums, rabbits, sugar gliders, birds of prey such as owls and hawks, and other animals. While many people may have some of these animals as pets, there are still a great number of children (such as those who live in major cities) who have never touched a rabbit or chicken. It was an awesome opportunity to be able to educate children and work with live animals, too.

My time in the education department also required me to complete several tasks not related to handling animals. I helped write the lessons and curriculum as well as the pre- and post-materials that were distributed to the teachers whose classes were visiting the zoo.

So, if you have ever thought about working with animals at a zoo, there are many possibilities open to you. You could start by volunteering to educate zoo visitors as they enter the animal exhibits. If helping animals stay healthy interests you, zoo nutritionists are a very important part of the animals’ lives, though they may not directly work in handling them. And if, like me, you want to work with animals and are also interested in the field of education, a zoo or natural science museum might provide you with the chance to combine both loves into a future career.

Copyright 2020, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Kristen Heider

Kristen Heider lives in New Jersey and is a housewife, mother to a teen stepson, and has two younger children (5 and 3). Kristen holds a BA in history and an MS in teaching. Kristen has worked as a volunteer at a National Park site, in the education department of a metropolitan zoo, and as a high school history teacher. Her favorite areas of history are Ancient Egypt, Tudor England, the American Civil War, and World War I.