Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Zoo Interpreter Interview


We have another great Zoo Tale to share with you today. Andrew King is a zoo photographer and worked as a zoo interpreter at the Seneca Park Zoo. Thanks to Andrew for sharing his adventures and zoo photography tips with us.

ZT: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Andrew and I am originally from Western NY State. I lived there mostly all my life, but I moved down to Maryland a little over a year ago. I went to the University at Buffalo for theater performance. Although I loved my major and used my talents in some of my jobs, I needed something more stable. I got retail work, which lead to jobs in hospitality. Currently I am the head guest service agent at one of the top hotels in Hagerstown, MD. This has been a blessing when I plan zoo trips as I am offered very cheap rates when I stay at a hotel in our company’s chain.

ZT: Where did your love of zoo animals originate?

My earliest memory is being pushed around a stroller at a zoo. I am pretty sure it was a dream because I can remember seeing myself. It was like the start of a movie as I have a view high in the sky and then it zooms down my family walking on the side walk. I always loved animals when I was a kid. My uncle had a farm and I fell in love with cows. I planned to be a farmer until I was introduced to manatees. Then I wanted to be a marine biologist. I would get many toy animal play sets while growing up. I would go on field trips to the BuffaloZoo, Seneca Park Zoo, and Niagara Falls Aquarium. I would borrow my grandmother’s old Zoo books until I got my own subscription. I also had those animal binders. You’d get a pack of animal fact sheets each month. Going to zoos was an occasional activity. It was great to revisit the Buffalo Zoo when I went to college. I remembered the bear grottoes, Rocky Mountain sheep hill, and the smell of the gorilla exhibit. After I graduated I found a partner who was willing to put up with my animal/zoo obsession and we began to go to zoos in nearby cities. We continue to take zoo trips and we have many zoos left to see!

ZT: What zoo do you consider your "home" zoo?

That’s a bit of a tough question. I grew up mostly visiting Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY. However, I also went to the Buffalo Zoo. I also visited it weekly when I lived in the city of Buffalo for a couple years after college. Since I consider Buffalo still my home city, I would consider their zoo to be my home zoo.

ZT: How did you get involved in zoo photography? Do you do it just for fun or commercially for profit?

The funny thing is while growing up; family would not want me to take group photos for them. I would feel the pressure of having to take a great picture, but people would be off centered all the time. I am still not the greatest fan of taking photos of people. Animal and nature photography is more of my expertise. I guess it started in college. Despite being nervous taking posed photos, I enjoyed taking candid photos of friends at parties. I would always rush home afterwards and insist on uploading my photos on Facebook. It as if I want to freeze these memories in time.

Anyway, at the same time I started to visit the Buffalo Zoo again and I became obsessed taking good photos. They always had a photo contest, but I did not enter it until the year I moved back to Buffalo. During college I would see amazing close ups of animals and I always wished I had a camera that could do that. I had a point and shoot camera for awhile, but I have recently updated to a camera with a nice zoom. The first year I entered the contest I did not place at all. But I remember going to the ceremony and one of the judges encouraged us to constantly take photos, even if it was of grass, until we perfected our skills. So that year I took multiple photos and upgraded my camera. Nice captures started to happen more often. So a year later I place second place in the bird category. For the 2011 contest, I was a judge’s choice in the reptile category for my photo of a green crested basilisk.


I only take photos for fun. Going to zoos relax me. When I can forget everything and have my focus on capturing a certain moment, I feel at ease. I think I may have tried to sell my prints on websites like Red Bubble in the past, but I never got anyone to buy anything. I don’t mind being an amateur photography that does it for the pure joy of it.

ZT: Many readers ask me “how to work at a zoo” or “how do you become a volunteer at a zoo.” Are there any requirements to work at a zoo?

I found out about the position because my high school friend worked in the education department. I was going to apply for a similar position the year before, but another job came up. But this summer I was ready for the posting and she informed me about it. I believe my theater background helped me as you had to be entertaining when you did these demonstrations. Most of the times visitors probably don't even hear you because one of the animals is doing something cool. However, to be lively it helps them to actually listen. If I heard a bored person listing off facts, I would just tune them out. A love for animals helped as well. Two out of three of us had a theatrical background. The other one was majoring in animal science and took classes in public speaking.

ZT: Describe your work in the education department at the zoo jobs you worked for in the summer? What type of jobs in zoos did you do? Describe your daily activities.

I worked at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY during the summer if 2009. It was one of my most favorite jobs. I even went back the following summer and I helped out for a day. It was a blast to reconnect with former coworkers and animals My main job was being an interpreter for the daily animal demonstrations. The lead animal trainer in the education department came up with wonderful, short, informative scripts about the certain zoo animals. I did demonstrations for the North American river otter, white rhinoceros, African elephant, California sea lion, and the Arctic wolf. We also had a general enrichment demonstration we did on various animals depending on the day. The enrichment demonstrations I interpreted were for the meerkat, radiated tortoise, Amur tiger, olive baboon, and the North American river otter. We also did question and answer sessions during the feeding times of the American alligators and African black footed penguins. I was never a fan of the alligator Q & A’s, but I loved the penguin one. It was decided half way into the season we would go into the exhibit with the keepers and answer questions facing visitors. Before this we were just in the crowd and sometimes got lost. I also enjoyed this because I got go in their holding area beforehand and sometimes help insert pills (medicine) in the fish for the penguins.


The other part of my job was to assist with the stage show. We did a mini trip around the world showing various animal ambassadors from different continents. Animals featured were the Mallard duck, Harris hawk, sun conures, tawny owl, domesticated rat, bush baby, African gray parrot, serval, and the Virginia opossum. Although we traveled around the world, our repeated message was to emphasis to kids that they could discover the wonders of nature right there in their own backyards. The main animal trainer was responsible for actual contact and behaviors with the animals. We just helped narrate the script – sort of filled in the gaps leading into the next segment during times she had to get an animal from backstage. However, I did have contact with the Virginia opossums. They were sisters named Thelma and Louise. Louise was the one I always had and I loved her dearly, even if she drooled and farted on me. In between shows I would give them enrichment by taking them out of their cages and having them walk around. Behind the stage was a small hillside so it was perfect area to explore. I had to keep my eye on them as they sometimes tended to go in opposite directions! I would also help set up crates before shows, clean them afterwards, help cart animals to their final destination, and help set up the sound equipment. Having studied theater in college, this was a perfect job to display my skills and personality.

ZT: Of course I have to ask, what is your favorite zoo that you've been to and why?

I have not been to a lot of the major U.S. Zoos. The biggest one I have been to so far has turned out to be my favorite; the Columbus Zoo. It has a great animal collection, themed geographic sections, and is continuing to expand and improve. I loved seeing the manatees, okapis, Matschie’s tree kangaroos, koalas, and I loved the new polar bear exhibit.

ZT: The Columbus Zoo is my favorite as well. Thanks again to Andrew for sharing his Zoo Tale with us! Check out more of his zoo animals pictures here.

For more stories read our interview with another zoo photographer.