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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.