What do you want to be when you grow up? If you had asked me this question for most of my childhood, I would have told you that I wanted to be a veterinarian.
To be completely cliché, I loved animals… what else was there to do? My early days were spent trying to get the shy Price Park ducks to come get me bread, building exquisite homes out of my mother’s canning jars for the Japanese beetles I caught in the garden, and to dress my cat in clothes to be embarrassing to all felines trying to stalk a bird in a striped shirt and hat.
What can I say, I was preparing my career.
However, while at Hoover High School, I was drawn away from my veterinary aspirations by music and drama. What high school ingenue hasn’t been in the limelight singing “On My Own” from Les Miserables and thinking, “Broadway here I am!”
My parents raised me to be a grounded kid, so I figured high school music teacher was a more attainable goal. However, my audition for The Ohio State University College of Music was an epic fail, so back to square one.
My boyfriend at the time (whom I met during high school choir and who I’ve now been married to for 21 years) convinced me to reconsider the whole vet thing. I was at OSU with an amazing vet school, so why the hell?
I graduated in March 2000 from OSU with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, which gave me months to prepare for the veterinary college entrance exam in the fall…until fate intervened. .
I saw a flyer in the student union for a job fair at the Columbus Zoo to hire summer seasonal workers. Ironically, it was my stage experience in high school that gave me the edge of being hired on the bird show staff to do presentations of birds in flight at the zoo.
The experience was absolute, total and complete love on first flight for me. I never applied to vet school and never looked back.
Fast forward 22 years: The Columbus Zoo led me to the Nashville Zoo, which led me to the Akron Zoo.
For the past 20 years, I’ve driven from my home in North Township to my second home at the Akron Zoo. It’s my second home because it’s where my second family lives.
For example, Tex the turkey vulture is almost 37 years old and is the oldest animal in the zoo. I’ve worked with him for over half his life, but he tries hard to keep me on my toes every day.
Kechara is a Harris Falcon. We have a special bond that was formed when we returned to Akron from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago…in January…during a blizzard…when cell phones still had big antennas.
Jinx is an American crow. He accepts the best neck massage when I just need a moment of peace, and in that moment we are both comforted.
Chloe is a kinkajou. His entourage is so small that I feel incredibly privileged to be a member of the club.
Kito is a white-crested turaco. She was born at the Akron Zoo and was the first bird I trained to fly from scratch.
Summer is a marmot. She is bold and sassy and just seeing her chew on a piece of banana brings joy to my life.
I could go on and on. I have cared for so many animals during my tenure in the zoo’s education department and each has carved out a special place for themselves.
It’s hard to put into words the sense of responsibility I feel in my work at the zoo – the lives of these animals are literally in the hands of those of us who care for them. We have to be so in tune with them because they can’t tell us in words if something is wrong.
The time we spend with animals, observe them, interact with them, learn who that animal is as an individual and not just a member of its species, all of this helps build a language between us that we both can to interpret.
I have always been fascinated by the twists and turns of our lives. How every event, every decision affects all future events and decisions down the road. What if I hadn’t seen the Columbus Zoo flyer?
Somehow many big and small puzzle pieces of my life came together and led me to this amazing experience at Akron Zoo. I feel very lucky to have been able to do this job that I love and still live in my hometown.
After all, someone still has to feed the shy ducks in the park.
Debra Swank of North Canton is the Training and Trends Coordinator at the Akron Zoo.