So You Want to Be a Zookeeper: Art of Persistence with Curator Michelle

I enjoyed spending time with Michelle, a Curator at a facility specializing in marine mammals and research. The biggest takeaway from my conversation was how she applied the art of persistence to her personal growth and journey.

It all started on a hobby farm.

Michelle started her career as a dog trainer in high school after growing up on a hobby farm. She was inspired to get into training after watching an agility competition. Her love of training inspired her to become a marine mammal trainer.

She chose UC Santa Cruz as her college due to its “one-stop shopping”! She volunteered and interned at the marine mammal lab on campus. This combo allowed her to graduate college with two years of volunteering experience and one internship. While these opportunities were unpaid, she did receive college credit and hands-on experience, which is vital for getting a job as a zookeeper.

First full-time job

With her hands-on experience, she landed her first full-time job as a marine mammal trainer. She learned to do shows solo at this small facility, both talking and working animals on stage together. She got lots of experience as a dolphin trainer and continued to work with seals and sea lions.

Michelle shares that working at this facility wasn’t always easy. The hours were long, and the pay wasn’t great. She applied the art of persistence to learn a little about everything in the three years she was there. Due to her diligence, she learned about rescue, rehab, neonatal care, shows and presentation, husbandry, and more. Being at a small marine mammal facility, she participated in everything. The variety of responsibilities gave her the skills she needed to get a job as a marine mammal trainer at a new facility.

Starting from scratch

In Michelle’s next role, she helped Utah’s Hogle Zoo start its pinniped area at their zoo. She loved being able to build the department and influence how she organized things. Michelle talked about how she moved into a senior trainer position after ten years. She applied for leadership positions after realizing that she loved watching other people learn and grow.

She attended conferences, mentored her team, onboarded new team members, took courses like Beyond Animal Training, and even attended grad school. Despite all this personal development, she was still passed over for promotions six times. Michelle said the first time, she was “shocked and devastated,” but she didn’t give up. While those setbacks were hard to handle and hear, she took the feedback and worked on herself.

Michelle was rated exceptional in many reviews, and she struggled to understand why those reviews and excellent feedback weren’t enough to get her a leadership position. Her ability to reflect on the information given and learn and grow from the feedback allowed her to continue to develop.

New role

After many crucial conversations, Michelle realized that she would need to seek growth outside of her current facility. The art of persistence helped her ensure that she wasn’t uprooting her life for an even trade. She quickly got a new role as a curator in a new facility where she could apply her “why” of helping people grow to mentor a new team.

In her new role, she’s focused on not “coming in hot” with her new team. She talks about taking the time to learn about the program and the people while looking for opportunities to apply her knowledge.

I do not doubt that Michelle will exceed and excel in her new role, and I was honored to spend time with her! Click the picture to watch yourself!


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