Jack Thatcher’s first internship at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, following his freshman year in college, might best be described as learning through trial and error.
Make no mistake, following a zookeeper around and helping care for tigers, bears, alligators and other exotic creatures fed Thatcher’s passion for anything having to do with animals. Yet the position also proved more rigorous than he expected. That summer, the former Greenwich resident did everything from hauling manure to digging an artificial pond for some sandhill cranes. “It was physically exhausting work,” Thatcher says of the internship. “I was constantly using a shovel or a rake and picking up this and cleaning that. It’s nothing like sitting at a desk in front of a computer.”
As much as Thatcher gleaned from his trials, he also had a few missteps. Such as the day he decided to “talk back” to one of the wild cats who was in her enclosure. “One mistake I made was with the lynx,” notes Thatcher, who now works as an educator at the zoo. “One of them was in a really grumpy mood and I was kind of growling back at her. Well, she attacked the fence and just went totally crazy. I learned firsthand that you don’t test them and you don’t provoke them.”
Lessons are learned every day at the Bridgeport zoo, and it is not just the interns who come away the wiser. Some 250,000 people visit Beardsley each year, the bulk of them from Fairfield County, making it one of the more popular attractions in the state. And though most visitors simply want to have a pleasant day with their family and friends, nearly everyone discovers something they never knew before, be it as obvious as seeing what various species look like up close and personal or being introduced to serious conservation issues.
“While you’re having a good time with your family or your school group, we’re trying to sneak some education on you,” says Gregg Dancho, the zoo’s longtime director. “By the time you’ve seen the whole facility, you’re going to learn something, whether it’s about endangered species, backyard habitats or whatever.”
Once upon a time, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Beardsley Zoo was on the brink of extinction itself. Owned at the time by the City of Bridgeport, the once thriving zoo had grown stagnant and lagged behind its more enlightened, better-funded counterparts around the nation. It lacked a master plan of any consequence. Capital improvements were few and far between. Exhibits like the Monkey House, built in the 1950s, had become outdated. Nor was the zoo set up to properly care for certain creatures, such as its popular elephant, Kashieba. Reflecting the decline, attendance sank to 75,000 visitors a year.
Dark days had come to Beardsley Zoo, which had enjoyed a rich history going back to its founding in the early twenties. In fact, when Dancho became acting director in 1983, one of his mandates was to decide whether the place should shut down. Among other problems, the zoo was beginning to run afoul of United States Department of Agriculture requirements, putting its license in jeopardy. And Bridgeport, struggling with its own descent, refused to fund the necessary improvements.
These days, when you stroll the Beardsley Zoo’s thirty-three acres and take in the seventy species (some 300 animals), what you’ll see is the product of an inspiring comeback. At the heart of the zoo’s resurgence was tough decision making, such as closing certain exhibits and sending away creatures such as Kashieba to more appropriate venues; lobbying for state dollars; and a hard-nosed determination by Dancho and others to bring the place up to snuff.
“My mother and father took us to the zoo when I was two years old,” says Dancho, who grew up in Stratford and worked as a volunteer at Beardsley as a teenager. “I hated to see the facility in such dire straits. But we were able to get some state funding. We began taking a van with animals to schools to get people excited. We started an education program. We were able to start a volunteer docent program again. And we looked at what a professional zoo needed to be. Once we knew what the standards were, we just followed that.”
Ten years ago ownership was transferred to the Connecticut Zoological Society. Since the nonprofit took over, the zoo’s budget has ballooned from $800,000 to $3.2 million, the bulk of which is earned revenue. Full-time employees have gone from thirteen to fifty. And, perhaps the accomplishment Dancho is proudest of, Beardsley is among 216 facilities around the country to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In other words, its operating practices are on a par with bigger and richer entities like the Bronx Zoo.
Beardsley may not be everything Dancho and company want it to be, but it is well on its way. Probably the most popular attraction is the four endangered Amur tigers, including three youngsters — Viktor, Nika and Koshka — that were born on the premises in 2005. A Wolf Observation Learning Facility opened last year. And the Tropical Rainforest, with its free-flight aviary and various curious inhabitants, continues to be a visitor favorite.
One of the unheralded gems of the new — and improved — Beardsley is its internship program. In any given season, a collection of young people, most of them college students, work several days a week for no pay. (Many do receive college credit.) And while the internship itself has been around a while, its popularity is growing among students considering careers as veterinarians, zookeepers and any number of jobs involving animals.
For their efforts, the youngbloods get unique experience. Graybeards like Dancho, meanwhile, receive a jolt of youthful enthusiasm, idealism and a reminder of what led them to such work in the first place (not to mention free help). “You get reinvigorated by seeing these students come in,” the director says. “They can’t believe they’re working in such an environment or that they’re able to see tigers up close and work with these animals.”
Although an occasional intern comes from points elsewhere, most go to school or live in the area. And though the twenty-five summer positions — and fifteen or so during other seasons — are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, the internship has some firm guidelines. Candidates have to be at least eighteen years old and taking classes, full or part time, or be recent graduates. All academic majors are welcome. High school students who are second-semester seniors and meet the age requirement are accepted as well.
Volunteer coordinator Tracy Benham, who runs the internship program, prefers that the application process not become a competitive winnowing out of candidates. But it may come to that one day. “I’m not recruiting interns,” she says. “Let’s put it this way: I filled up this coming summer by the second week of January. In the last couple of years — I think because of the Internet and because word has gotten out at certain colleges — we fill up very, very quickly.”
Some of the interns are applying to veterinary school. Others want to be zookeepers or field researchers. Still others know they want to work with animals and are exploring the possibilities. Jack Thatcher, for instance, got a lot out of his experience working in Beardsley’s predators area. But when he came back after his sophomore year at Wheaton College, he asked if he could help somewhere else. That summer he worked in the curator’s office. The following year he helped the veterinary technician. In his last internship at the zoo, he was in the education department, where he now works full time. “You learn a lot not only about a job,” Jack says, “you also learn about yourself in a working environment.”
That’s the spirit that high school students especially should bring to internships, notes Susan Carroll, coordinator of the College and Career Center at New Canaan High School. “Kids have sort of a romanticized version of what jobs are, of what a particular occupation might actually entail,” she says. “Sometimes when they see the day-to-day nitty-gritty it either encourages them to fall further in love with it or to say ‘This isn’t what I thought at all.’ How lucky someone would be to be able to find that information out at a younger age.”
And if the activity is something a high schooler is truly excited about, the experience can only help in the college application process. “If you write your essay or get recommendations from people who say, ‘This kid showed up rain, snow or sleet on time, dressed properly, knowing their responsibilities, worked their heart out without expecting to get paid,’ I think that says a lot,” Susan adds.
Colleges feel the same way, even at the advanced degree level. Just ask Rebecca Russo, director of admissions at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts. Some firsthand animal experience is required of applicants to virtually every vet school, she says. “We’re mostly looking for motivation and commitment when we’re looking at animal experience, not necessarily that they’ve done surgery. They’re going to learn all that when they get here.”
Beardsley’s interns, following trends in veterinary schools, are mostly women, who perform all kinds of tasks in a variety of areas. Many follow zookeepers and are assigned to certain animal sections of the zoo. Others help out in veterinary care, horticulture, education or administration. “It is not about playing with the animals,” Tracy says. “It’s about working hard.”
And though the staff treasures the interns and tries to make sure they have an enjoyable experience, Tracy says, things do occasionally get tense behind the scenes. An animal might be sick one day, combined with a facility plumbing problem, while a visitor is barking about having to stand in line at the gift shop. “There are days when all hell is breaking loose,” Tracy admits, “and people are not always nice to each other.”
Interns learn to care fervently for animals but at the same time steel their emotions when a creature must be euthanized or transferred to another facility. They learn job etiquette, how to deal with the public, and how to work with older people as well as those from different backgrounds.
Then there’s the big payoff — working with the animals. Jack Thatcher speaks of falling in love with the tigers, among other creatures. He says they would recognize him when he approached their enclosure. One would even exchange greeting calls with him.
John Burns, a senior at Fairfield Prep who wants to become a field researcher, works in the “hoofstock section”, which includes bison, wolves, prairie dogs and other creatures. His favorite zoo residents are the pronghorns. “I get to go in with them to clean,” John says. “They have a habit of playing with new people when they go in. They’re always pushing into my knees, trying to knock me down.”
Meredith Baker, of Fairfield, meanwhile, who graduated from Sacred Heart University last month, recently interned in veterinary care at the zoo. The job entailed assisting the veterinary technician and joining the visiting veterinarian when he inspected and treated the animals. She also works at a local small-animal practice. And though Meredith is fond of Beardsley’s animals, especially the otters, she is equally fascinated by the many different cell samples she has seen under the microscope, an understandable interest for someone who majored in biology and who seeks to go to veterinary school.
“This is not something everyone gets to do,” she says. “I’m seeing such a bigger range of animals than the normal cats and dogs. I get to see bird cells, reptile cells and mammal cells. It gives me a totally different outlook on a veterinary career.”
It is no wonder that when the zoo is hiring it often turns to those who already know the place, its procedures and people. “Most of the animal-care staff began as interns,” Tracy says. “I don’t have a percentage of how many that is, but it’s pretty high. When the staff gives me a hard time about the interns, I always say, ‘Hey, three years ago you were that scared little nineteen-year-old sitting in my office.’”
A number of interns have gone on to stellar careers. One works at the renowned San Diego Zoo. Another became a researcher for National Geographic. Yet another was chief surgeon at Cornell University’s prestigious veterinary school.
To some degree, all have become ambassadors for Beardsley Zoo, director Dancho says, no doubt spreading the word that a new day has dawned for the zoo that refused to die.
Visit, Learn, Volunteer
Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, 1875 Noble Ave., Bridgeport, 394-6565, is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Get information on directions, fees, special events, conservation action and volunteer opportunities online at beardsleyzoo.com.