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  • Writer's pictureRick Schwartz

My Path to Becoming a Keeper

"There are many ways to get there from here. But the path you take is yours. It is unique to you and what you make of it along the way."

The Tiger. Like many in my line of work, it started with an early childhood

obsession. For the most part I think I was curious about all animals as a kid, but the obsession started with cheetahs and tigers. I can remember I did my first big school report in second grade about cheetahs. I was enamored with their speed an how their body was so different from lions and tigers. But shortly after my cheetah obsession, there was something about the tiger that grabbed my imagination and my heart. Then in middle school, when I learned about Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training & Management program and the work people could do with big cats, I was sure I was going to work with tigers forever.

The Vulture. Prior to the Fall semester of my first year at Moorpark College’s EATM program, if you would have told me that my favorite animal through out that whole time was going to be a bird - I would have laughed in your face. If you would have said that it would not just be a bird, but a turkey vulture... I would have thought for sure you were the craziest person ever. But shortly into my first semester of my first year, I was invited to watch a session with this turkey vulture named Puppy. And from then on, for almost every single day I was either observing a session or sitting in on a feeding. Skip ahead to our 1st animal assignments, and I was happily assigned to Puppy the turkey vulture. From that point on, I couldn’t imagine not having that bird in my life while attending EATM. He taught me so much. But the biggest lesson he taught to the younger me, keep an open mind.

The Birds. After college I had many jobs. One of those jobs that I stuck with the longest was working with over 120 birds at one facility. From parrots to cranes and flamingos to swans... We even had a few marmosets and tamarins. People will often say a certain species will always act a certain way. This job taught me just how much each individual animal is indeed an individual. And if you are going to be successful at anything, you need to take the time to understand the individual within the group. Or you will never understand the dynamics and intricacies of the group.

The Dogs. There were a few other jobs like waiting tables, working as a

night-shift receiver at an animal shelter and so on. But the next big animal job was working at Guide Dogs for the Blind. I started off as an Instructor’s Assistant and in time worked into an Apprentice position. This is a photo of one of the final testings for Dwight (the dog) and I. I was given a general location to go to, but not told exactly where I was. Blindfolded and with my trusty guide, Dwight the Labrador, we headed off to our destination. Being the champ he was, he got us both there safe and sound. The list of things I learned during this part of my career is incredibly long. I'd say that the top 4 on that list would be communication is more than what you think it is. Training people and animals is an art and a science. Educating others will inevitably result in you learning something too. And the power of teamwork is truly something to cherish. (Oh yeah, and not all superheroes wear capes.)

The Zoo. I sent in my first application for a full-time keeper position to the San Diego Zoo with my college education and over 7 years of experience behind me. I was pretty confident I’d get an interview at least. Instead I received a letter saying I was not selected to proceed through the application process. Another position opened a short while later, and I applied again. And I received a similar letter. I did this a total of 5 times. Application sent in, letter saying "no" received. On attempt number 6, I was asked to interview. A few days after the interview I was kindly told that I was the second choice and their first choice took the offer. Lucky number seven... Application sent in and landed another interview. This time I was offered a part-time keeper position. That meant leaving a full time position with benefits at Guide Dogs for the Blind. It was a risk, but I took the offer.

I have been at the San Diego Zoo for almost 18 years now. I have had the honor of working with some of the most amazing animals (and people). And now, my career has become something more than I ever could have imagined. I am not officially a Keeper anymore. But I have the heart and passion of a Keeper, and I always will. And of course, I will always celebrate and champion the work my fellow Keepers do!

*Photo Credit: Tiger - by Ian Robinson on Unsplash Free Photo Site

*Photo Credit: Guide Dog work - C. Davis, personal and dear friend

*Photo Credit: Fossa - anonymous zoo member and friend

#Animals #Zookeeper #AmericasTeachingZoo #GuideDog #Birds #Tiger #Dog #TeachingZoo #ZooKeeper

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