Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a zoo? The best way to find out is through an internship! My name is Jessie, and I’m an education intern at the Lehigh Valley Zoo! I currently go to school at Juniata College where I study Wildlife Conservation and Zoology. I have always wanted to work with animals and love learning new facts about them. I grew up in the Lehigh Valley, so I visited the zoo frequently and have always been interested in interning or volunteering. After I finished my freshman year of college, I had my first opportunity to intern with the education department this summer. The education department offers two types of internships, animal handling and interpretation. I was selected for the animal handling internship, which focuses on hands-on experience with ambassador animals and educating guests about them.
On a typical day, I start out my morning with some office work. Interns come in before the zoo opens to prepare for the day. This could include writing program outlines about our ambassador animals, working on a blog post, watching online informational zoo courses, or working on special projects assigned by the education department. During this time, we could also be getting an introduction on an animal that we had finished an outline for as well. This is part of our animal handling program that I will touch on later. Once the zoo opens up at 10 o’clock, then we start on our tasks for the day.
Some days I’m scheduled for onsite Animal Kingdom (AK) Programs all day, but there are some days where we’re not even at the zoo most of the day. Animal handling interns have the chance to go on ZooReaches with the education specialists. These are off site programs in which we bring the animals to you! For the education department and the animal handling interns, AK programs are the main way we teach guests about our ambassador animals. These programs are scheduled by schools and groups for field trips to the zoo and birthday parties at the zoo. AK’s are 30 minute programs with three animals. Each program explains the ambassador animal’s habitat, diet, predators, adaptations, and their conservation message. The animal handling program divides the ambassador animals into different colored levels based on the level of difficulty when working with them. As I have advanced through the program to higher levels of animals, they have more complex behaviors and handling requirements for interns to learn about. The first level is green and it includes box turtles, pancake tortoises, milky tree frogs, blue-tongued skink, and sand boa. For each animal, we will write an outline with all of their information which we will then use when talking about that animal on program. Once we complete an outline and it is looked over by the education staff, one of the education specialists will give us an introduction on that animal so we can begin programming. As interns, we need to do three programs with an animal before we are signed off; then once we are signed off, we can present that animal on our own. Until we are signed off on an animal, we will continue to present them with one of our education specialists.
When we’re not doing AK’s, you can find interns in the exercise yard with one of the ambassador animals. Our exercise yard is a place for the ambassador animals to exercise and exhibit natural behaviors. It is a great place for interns to get extra practice on presenting an animal, but it is much less formal than an AK presentation. As guests are walking around the zoo, they can stop at our exercise yard to get some information on an animal they won’t see on exhibit. This interaction can be as short or as long as the guest would like. They can ask us any questions they have about the animal, or they can just take some time to watch the animal as they make their way around the yard. When I take one of the animals out to the exercise yard, I like to stick to fun facts versus the in-depth facts that we would typically share during an AK. As guests ask questions on the animal, I will then take time to answer their questions with the best answer I can provide based on my knowledge. In order for us to take animals out to the exercise yard, we have to make sure that it is above a certain temperature so we can make sure that it is the more ideal temperature for that animal. That is why you will only find ambassador animals in the yard during the warmer months, which are most ideal for our reptiles and mammals.
Throughout the day, you can also find interns giving animal chats during their feeding time. At scheduled times throughout the day, guests can experience watching the otter, lemurs, and penguins being fed. While our animal care team feeds the animals, you can find an education specialist or intern presenting information on that animal. These experiences allow our guests to get in-depth information on exhibit animals. Our animal chats touch on the same topics as our AK programs, bringing up the animals habitat, diet, predators, and adaptations. Differing from our AK’s, interns can give a chat on their own as soon as their outline is approved and they have watched an education specialist give that type of chat.
One of my favorite things that I get to do as an intern at the Lehigh Valley Zoo is work the giraffe feeds and spend time with Tatu and Joshua, our Masai Giraffes! There are many parts to a successful giraffe feed, such as checking guests in for tickets, going over rules, handing out lettuce, and keeping our giraffe’s focus while switching from one group to another. As interns, we are the ones on the giraffe deck keeping the boys focused and engaged during the feed. We are responsible for making sure that Joshua and Tatu are in their correct stations for feeding, enforcing the rules for our guests to keep them and our giraffes safe, and feeding the boys some “giraffe cereal” to help them keep their focus and encourage them to participate for the entire feeding. Guests are free to ask as many questions as they like about our giraffes during feedings since everyone that works the giraffe feed has to know some basic information about our giraffes.
With so many things to do at the zoo, being an intern can get you a lot of great skills for life. As someone who doesn’t like to publicly speak, I feel much more comfortable with that now since interning. I have also, mostly, gotten over my fear of snakes and tarantulas. While there is no set schedule for everyday when I come into work, I get to experience things that I typically wouldn’t be able to during my everyday life. Being an intern also opened me up to new job opportunities. Before this internship, I was set on doing field research, but I have since fallen in love with educating people about animals while still getting to work hands-on with them. I now know that animal education is my true calling.
Written by Jessie
Conservation Education Intern
Lehigh Valley Zoo | Schnecksville, PA