A question I get asked a lot when I give programs is: "what classes did you have to take in school in order to work at a zoo?" I make sure to tell the students that science and math are extremely important if you want a job working with animals and that in order to work at a zoo you need at least a bachelor's degree in a science field. My particular degree is a bachelor's of science in wildlife ecology and conservation. I love working at the zoo and interacting with animals and nature on a daily basis. However, as cool as working at the zoo is, there are many other careers out there that have an environmental focus, including wildlife biologists.
A wildlife biologist is someone who studies and/or manages wild animals and their habitats. This is a huge undertaking and therefore a very broad field. For instance, before I started work at Lee Richardson Zoo, I worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation performing field studies on endangered fish. I spent an entire summer snorkeling in the Ozarks of Missouri surveying spring-fed streams for the threatened Niangua darter. We would count the darters when we found them and map their location using GPS data in order to determine fluctuations in their populations. We would then identify other fish in the area to see if there was a relationship between, say, the Greenside darter and the location of the Niangua and estimate the size of the Niangua in order to try and gauge the age of the fish. We also focused on other endangered and threatened Missouri fish species including the Neosho madtom, Topeka shiner and the Ozark cavefish.
This took the entire summer, and this was just for a few fish species in one state! Yet this is typical work for a wildlife biologist. Sometimes the work is very focused, as in my case with the endangered fish. Other times the work can be broader, such as a biologist who is in charge of managing a park and all the animals and plants within the park boundaries. A good example that is a bit closer to home is the Sandsage Bison Range. Managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the bison range is located just south of Garden City and is home to a herd of about 22 bison, our Kansas state mammal. It also boasts an impressive variety of other animals and plants that are native to the sandsage prairie ecosystems, such as ornate box turtles, Mississippi kites, multiple snake species, pheasants, sand sagebrush and giant sandreed.
Managing such a diverse community requires dedication, flexibility and the ability to work in extreme weather conditions (just like our staff at the zoo!). It is an incredibly rewarding career, knowing that you are researching and protecting animals in their natural habitat, but it is also very hard work. When I was surveying for the Niangua darter, it was normal to trek for miles carrying backpacks full of gear to get to an appropriate fish habitat. Once we reached our stream, we faced the physically demanding task of snorkeling against the current of the water for hours on end, avoiding snakes and leeches in the process. But for me, the opportunity to see these rare fish in their native homes was worth the slight discomfort.
This summer, students going into the seventh and eighth grades have the opportunity to experience first-hand the challenges and rewards of being a wildlife biologist. In our Summer Edventure "Junior Wildlife Biologist" camp that takes place July 22 to 26, students will spend time at the zoo and also at Sandsage Bison Range learning sampling and management techniques that real professionals use in the field on a daily basis. We will look at questions such as why fire can be a good thing for an ecosystem and learn how to sample a population of animals to gain understanding about the number of a particular species in an area. But hurry and sign up, since space in this (and our other) camps are limited! You won't want to miss this fun opportunity to explore our zoo and the unique prairie that surrounds us in a way that you have never done before. Make sure to contact the zoo at 276-1250, or visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org for more information about our summer activities and available camp spaces. We hope to see you soon!