This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in honor of National Zookeepers Week.

Tiger training at the training wall in Bronx Zoo’s Tiger Mountain pavilion. Photo credit: ©Bronx Zoo Mammal Department

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my career would turn out exactly how I envisioned it when I was younger. When I was as young as three, I had an incredible animal experience that forever shaped my life.

My mother had brought my sister and me to a zoo for the day. We strolled through the park when my mother decided to stop in front of the tiger exhibit. The exhibit was a large glass-fronted habitat that one could walk right up to and marvel at the beauty of this striking species.

My mother recalls that the tiger was lying with his back to the glass. He then picked up his head, turned toward our direction, and sat facing us in front of the glass. My mother thought it was odd because I was staring at the tiger from my stroller and he was staring back. She took it a step further and unfastened me, and let me walk up to the glass—the only thing separating me from this powerful predator.

I have the privilege to work with not only tigers but also have been afforded the opportunity to be a giraffe, hyena, African wild dog, snow leopard, dhole, and brown bear keeper. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Face-to-face, the tiger and I stared at each other, my hand on the glass and the tiger sitting, for what my mother describes as an unusually long time. After what was probably only about a minute or two, the tiger laid down still facing me, breaking our trance. From that day forward, I was an animal enthusiast and continued to work toward my goal of becoming a tigerkeeper.

Once I was old enough to work at age sixteen, I started volunteering at various wildlife rescues. In high school I was tormented, feeling like an oddball for holding out the dream of working unconventionally as a “tiger keeper” as my future career. But in college, I found the course of study, friends, and job experiences that would support this crazy goal that eventually landed me at the Bronx Zoo.

After four years of study and six years of volunteering, I graduated in 2009 from Delaware Valley University. I entered the job market with a bachelor of science degree in Animal Biotechnology, specializing in Zoo Science with a minor in business. The world was my oyster and I was ready to get out there and “be the change I wished to see in this world”.

“From the day I first encountered a tiger at a zoo as a child, I determined to work toward my goal of becoming a tiger keeper,” recalls Lauren. Photo credit: ©Bronx Zoo Mammal Department

Then 2009 and the financial crisis hit. Like many people, I found that this was a tough year to find a job—particularly one that involved animals. I worked a couple of different non-animal-related jobs, all the while keeping what I liked to phrase as my “animal side” alive by volunteering where I could.

In time, I was accepted into a 3-month internship at a zoo that focused on carnivores and primates. I had the time of my life and learned so much. This stoked the passion in my heart to continue looking at animal jobs and to not give up hope that I would one day be a tiger keeper. About 3 months later, in 2012, I was granted an interview and was elated to become a Wild Animal Keeper in the Mammal Department at the Bronx Zoo!

I have been lucky to work at the Bronx Zoo for the past 9 years and I am happy to report that I have fulfilled my lifetime goal. I have the privilege to work with not only tigers but also have been afforded the opportunity to be a giraffe, hyena, African wild dog, snow leopard, dhole, and brown bear keeper. I’m responsible for providing their daily care, and I especially enjoy creating their enrichment and engaging in positive reinforcement training sets. I made it!

Lauren, pictured at the Bronx Zoo engaged in tactile and desensitize training of giraffes for medical procedures, relationship building, and platform feeds. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

This is why zoos and aquariums are so important and are needed in today’s climate. They bring wild animals into the lives of people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see them in nature due to their location on another continent or their declining numbers. The conservation engagement and education these animals provide are invaluable. Just look at the impact they had on me.

The encounter I had when I was three shaped me into the proud, confident keeper I am today.  Every day, our work matters, and the education we deliver to the public matters. The planet, our dwindling natural resources, and the environment rely on us to help amplify the message of conservation and open the hearts and minds of the public who visit our institution every day.

I am proud to be a member of a group that cares as deeply about their work as the zookeeper profession. Through perseverance, dedication, and sheer hope, I made my dreams come true. If you love animals, feel a calling to their welfare, and hope to inspire the public to make a commitment to conservation, perhaps this is a profession for you as well.

The post A Childhood Tiger Encounter Forges a Zookeeper appeared first on Nature.

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