As a zoo advocate, conservation blogger, and cheerleader of the natural world, I wanted to tell my story. Prepare for cheesiness (some by design, some by my natural awkwardness). I’m approaching my 5-year mark as a Zoo employee come next summer… That will be 5 years in the field I told myself I wanted to be a part of since I could ride in a wagon around the winding paths of the Indianapolis Zoo. I was THAT kid. Thick, rimmed glasses and ready to bestow animal facts upon you whether you wanted them or not. While my journey has had its own twists and turns, that little inner animal-loving, slightly nerdy kid, in a round-about way, helped me end up right where I needed to be.
My experience as a Zoo Keeper has been the most rewarding part of my professional, and to a great extent, my personal life. My mind is in a better place, I’ve made life-long friendships, and my heart tells me “you’re home.” Though I’ve since moved on from my role as Keeper, to a position better suited for me to champion our mission to the public with greater impact, my love and passion will always remain with the animals.
Within this wild time working at the Zoo, several animals have made lasting impacts on my life. I’ve seen animals come into this world, held and comforted soft souls as they finish their life cycles, delivered life-saving medication, provided enrichment, trained behaviors, been pooped on, peed on, spit on, sneezed on, drooled on, and any kind of verb and “on” you can imagine. But one group of animals have given me more compassion, more grit, more drive, more…just more. These animals aren’t hard to spot in a crowd. They’re weird, stubborn, highly intelligent, opportunely funny, and so damn tall! With Jelani, our big male, topping off at sixteen and half feet, my time with the giraffes has been one of the great HIGHlights of my life (see what I did there).
When I first stepped foot in the giraffe barn, it was not as a Giraffe Keeper. I was a seasonal Zoo Keeper in our Australian Outback Adventure (as a northern Indiana zoo, it is not optimal for us to be open to guests throughout the year, therefore we operate April – October). As a seasonal Australian keeper, I still learned the ins and outs of the profession with our kangaroo mob, dingoes, Tasmanian devils, and a small collection of birds and reptiles. My mentor keepers of this section are still dear friends to this day!
Myself and one of these keepers made a trek across the zoo in Truck #4, a ran-ragged, 2-door Ford Ranger with a rusty floorboard to acquire some straw for roo (zoo slang for kangaroo) bedding. The location where the straw is kept is conveniently right outside a metal double-door; the kind of heavy-duty doors you might expect when entering a machine shop. To my surprise, we radioed the giraffe keeper (who would become a close friend of mine in the years to come), and received permission to enter the mysterious world of the Giraffe Barn.
Just to paint a picture for you, going behind-the-scenes at the Zoo is something I’ve always been infatuated with. My grandma got me a behind-the-scenes experience with the elephants and an overnight stay next to the dolphin viewing glass at the Indy Zoo when I was around 9. I was hooked. You’d think the excitement of entering animal space would wear off after half a decade of doing it. It doesn’t. Not for me. So there we were, entering an area of the zoo seldom seen by outsiders where I would have a life-changing moment.
Sometimes in life, you realize how important a moment is after the fact, when you have time to reflect and absorb what happened in that space and time. This was not one of those moments. It was instantaneous. Jelani is our big male giraffe and was very obviously the first animal we encountered in the barn. When he extended his neck over the side of the fence, and I found myself staring straight up, like trying to look at an eclipse, into the eyes of this massive creature, everything came together. This was a moment I wanted to experience again and again. And more importantly, I wanted to guarantee that other people can have these special moments too.
When you’re at a Zoo and you see the giraffes, for instance, they’re beautiful, impressive animals. You may even have the chance to feed one a piece of lettuce – to see it’s long, prehensile tongue wrap around it and pull the entire leaf into it’s mouth. Cherish these moments because they’re so valuable to connect with the other creatures with whom we share this planet. When you visit a zoo or aquarium, really see those animals. Look into their eyes. You’ll feel connected and it’s a wonderful thing.
Animals have given me purpose. Inspiring people to care about wild animals through the interactions we have with their ambassador counterparts at zoos and aquariums is something I will forever be passionate about. We may not be able to talk with animals, but we can understand them. When you can understand animals, you can understand they’re worth protecting. I will stand up for the important work that zoos do. I will stand tall for wildlife and conservation. And when we stand together, we can be seen. Stand up, stand tall, just like the giraffes – the tall ones.
If you’d like to know about giraffe conservation, visit the Giraffe Conservation Foundation at: https://giraffeconservation.org/