So You Want To Be A … Wildlife Curator

With some job, you have to claw your way to the top. When you’re a wildlife curator, though, your job often claws back. Meet my friend, Chivon, the Wildlife Curator for Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve here in Birmingham, Alabama. Chivon’s worked with livestock and zoo animals and now gets up close and personal with snakes, owls and all sorts of creepy crawly things that inhabit this gorgeous, sprawling 1038-acre urban nature preserve (the third largest in the U.S, thank you very much.) Chivon has some great advice on what you can do with an Animal Sciences degree, what to expect when you castrate a goat (spoiler alert: they don’t like it) and how to deal with the false judgements that may sadly be human nature but have no place out in actual nature.

Tell us about your career path. What did you study in school and what jobs led you to become a wildlife curator?

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I guess I still don’t. But when I was little my parents had always assumed I would become a veterinarian. I’m not sure how this got started, but my suspicion is that I was never very good with people and would go some place quiet and pet a cat or a dog when there were a lot of people around that I didn’t know.

Chivon's office. (Ruffner Mountain)

Chivon’s office. (Ruffner Mountain)

When I graduated from high school, the only thing I could think to pursue was a pre-vet degree. Not that I had a lot of passion in it, mind – that came later. No, it’s because it’s the only thing that I appeared to have any kind of aptitude in. That and reading.

I have a degree in Animal Science from Texas A&M University-Commerce (basically UAB with cattle). What does a degree in Animal Science mean? It meant I spent a lot of time with my arm up the backside of cows and learning valuable lessons like: goats scream like children when being castrated, what the omasum (one of the four parts of a cow’s stomach) smells like, how to collect sperm from stallions, and formulate balanced livestock feed. It wasn’t all agriculture though. There was a lot of genetics and chemistry classes involved.

I thought for sure and for certain that I would work as a livestock manager on some farm in Texas. But while I was getting my degree I started interning at a private wildlife refuge that had tigers, cougars, lions, and wolf-dogs. After doing that for four years, I found that I enjoyed exotic animals a lot more than livestock, and eventually landed a job at the Dallas Zoo as a bird keeper.

At the Dallas Zoo I took care of everything from flamingoes to Andean condors, but by the time I moved to Birmingham, I felt like my career as a zoo keeper had come to an end for various reasons. Two months after moving to Birmingham I got a job at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve as a teaching naturalist, then as the Wildlife Curator, and I’ve been there every since – close to five years now.

What other kinds of jobs can you get with an Animal Science degree?

Well, the obvious is a livestock or dairy manager, but also vet technician, zoo keeper, or a lab technician 

Can you tell us what a typical day is like for a wildlife curator? 

Getting a little face time with her coworkers.

Getting a little face time with her coworkers.

I come to work at 8am every morning – honestly, pretty cushy compared to when I used to work at a zoo. Animals never take a vacation, and unfortunately expect to eat every day, so I come in on every holiday too. Christmas morning has me cleaning cages just like it would any other day.

In the mornings I check on my animal collection, note any changes, and then feed them. Late mornings are reserved for cleaning and more record keeping. In the afternoons I do most of my animal training, and finally feeding animals that like to eat in the early evening, like owls.

Where do you see this career taking you?

I have no idea. Ten years ago I didn’t even know a job like this could exist and that I could be working in it. I guess we’ll just see.

How do you (and you alone) define success in your career? How will you know you’ve “made it?”

I define success in two ways: the pride that I take in a clean, healthy, happy animal collection, and being known as a resource for information about wildlife. There’s always room for improvement, but I’m slowly getting there. Working with animals is pretty thankless, on a whole, and you can’t expect to get much recognition in it, unless you have your own television show.

Wildlife Curator

Getting Ziggy with it. (That’s Ziggy, Ruffner’s eastern screech owl)

Is there something you wish someone had told you before you became a wildlife curator?

In a way, I wish someone would have told me about the stress involved with taking care of your own animal collection, but I’m also glad no one did. I don’t think I would have gotten this far if someone had told me about it. I have 30 some odd animals under my direct care, which isn’t much, really, but I’m solely responsible for each and every one.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife curator?

Blowing kids minds. Not literally. But I love fun facts and I love to share fun facts about wildlife to kids. Fortunately, a part of my job involves wildlife education, so I get to do that pretty often. I also like to do awesome things for the stories I get to tell afterwards. Have I ever told you about that time I gave a bald eagle CPR in the back of a speeding SUV? No? Well, let me tell you…

What’s the suckiest part of your job?

I suppose it would be the stress. Whether you want to or not you start to become attached to the animals under your care, and you live and die with them.

What stresses you out about your job and how do you deal with it?

Well, as mentioned above, I am the main caretaker for the animals of the collection. I’m also the one that acquires new animals as needed. I worry about a lot of things, and I often have to run up to work to check on the animals after a bad storm or when, like just recently, someone smelled a “burning” smell coming from the Animal Care Department (turns out it was just an old light bulb). I worry about making bad acquisitions for the department, and I worry about not doing the best I can for each and every critter.

How I deal with it? I’ve just started to learn to relax a little and that’s been very hard for me. I used to stay awake at night imagining that the owl’s jesses have caught on a branch and now he’s dangling upside down helpless, or that the rabbit had managed to eat his entire plastic litter box causing a dire stomach upset, or that one of my snakes had escaped. Amazingly enough, animals are more resilient than I want to believe, and it’s taken me about 15 years to be able to sleep at night without worrying about them…too much.

Aaand she gets to work with flying squirrels.

Aaand she gets to work with flying squirrels.

Any advice for young women interested in becoming a wildlife curator?

As with any career in science, even the natural sciences, you will get talked down to. People, men and women alike, will assume you don’t know much and would prefer to talk to male staff rather than you, especially if you look young, whether you are or not.

Also, being a woman and working with animals, a lot of people assume that all I do is cuddle things all day. Women are a “natural fit” for working with animals. I could never stand that. Animal keepers like myself do so much more than cuddle cute things. We do our own construction work, lift heavy items, and wrestle dangerous animals.

It’s so easy to want to correct someone the instant they make a false judgment about you. But my advice is to wait for opportune moments. Of course you’ll want to prove that you are knowledgeable right up front, but I’ve learned that if you do that, you come across as someone with something to prove. You don’t have anything to prove anything to anyone but yourself. Keep on keeping on and eventually people will learn their mistake in judging you so quickly. I have a sort of sick pleasure in smiling at the people who think all I do is cuddle animals all day, when I have a rattlesnake physical scheduled for that afternoon.

Have any questions for Chivon about being a wildlife curator or getting an Animal Sciences degree? Ask away in the comments below. 

Photo courtesy of KO Photo

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