We Need a Gazelle Today
While studying the smallest of organisms, Beth Schaefer (B.S., Microbiology, 1990) realized that she wanted to work with lions, tigers and perhaps pangolins. She’s now general curator at the L.A. Zoo. Below, she explains how she got there and why she’s so passionate about zoos. She also shares some Cal Poly memories about the tuba and sheep sheering.
HOW DID YOU GET FROM MICROBIOLOGY TO BEING A ZOOKEEPER?
When I volunteered at the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero, I realized that I wanted to be a zookeeper. I loved working day to day with individual animals, but when I had the opportunity to talk to people about the animals and see them get intrigued and involved, I knew instantly, “This is it.”
IT MUST BE A COMPETITIVE FIELD. HOW DID YOU GET A FOOT IN THE DOOR?
I always knew that animals were my passion. I knew I had the skills, so I kept on applying. I sent out over 200 resumes. You also have to be willing to move anywhere. I started in Kansas City, Mo.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A ZOO CURATOR?
Zookeepers care for animals on a day-to-day basis. Curators decide what species of animals to bring to the zoo, like the curator of a museum. If there’s an empty exhibit, we get to consider what we should we fill it with. Where can we get the animals? Who needs to breed with whom to maintain genetic diversity? If the male in my big-horn sheep herd has bred with all the females, where can he go?
DO YOU MISS WORKING DIRECTLY WITH ANIMALS?
I think everyone in zoo administration misses the animals, but you see that you can make a bigger difference in their lives if you’re willing to take on a leadership role. Helping the animals has always been my driving goal.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Maybe the best part is when our visitors get excited about some of the animal behaviors and when they realize the biodiversity that’s out there. They see these animals they didn’t even know existed.
For example, the L.A. Zoo as a whole consulted on the movie “The Jungle Book.” There’s a character in there called a pangolin that’s also one of the most endangered animals on the planet right now. The reason it’s in there is that an L.A. Zoo curator suggested it. And now the whole world knows about the pangolin.
WHY ARE ZOOS IMPORTANT?
I work with a program that rehabilitates baby gorillas whose parents have been killed by poachers. It’s hugely rewarding to take 20 years of captive animal experience and use that to help animals that might go back into the wild. This is one of the big reasons why zoos are relevant. We learn so much about animals’ behavior and medical care. Studies done in zoos translate into the wild. Look at the California condor. If it weren’t for the L.A. Zoo, there would be no California condors in the wild.
Another reason is education. If people don’t understand and care about animals and feel connected to them, they’re not going to do anything to protect them.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE ANIMAL?
One of my favorite species is orangutans. They’re very smart and flexible in their thinking. One of my favorite individuals was Tempest the raven, who was also very smart. She was always looking for a way to annoy you. She would steal the sunglasses off your head. One day she stole a $20 bill out of a zookeeper’s pocket and ripped it up.
HOW DID CAL POLY PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR CAREER
Learn by Doing has stuck with me throughout my career — even from the pig and sheep classes. It makes the transition into the working world easier. The zoo field is so specialized that you really need to hit the ground running. Being comfortable with learning on the go has been extremely beneficial.
It’s also inspirational to see what your Cal Poly friends are doing in their careers.
What was Cal Poly like when you were here?
Cal Poly is a completely magical world that no one wants to leave. The Central Coast is such an amazing place. When I was there, there were fewer buildings. We didn’t have that beautiful rec center.
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A STUDENT AT CAL POLY?
Busy. I knew I wanted to work with animals, so I worked with vets in the area. I also played tuba in both marching band and symphonic band, which took a lot of time. And in between I was studying.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES?
I went to Cal Poly knowing I was going to be an animal science major because I wanted to be a vet at the time. I was taking a sheep sheering class. I’m from L.A. I never thought that people could actually have livestock. There’s a way to hold the sheep so that they’re calm and you can sheer them quickly. My sheep knocked me down and ran away, and I thought, maybe this isn’t for me.
Also, the first Jurassic Park movie hadn’t come out yet. I had a class with Dr. [Raul] Cano, and we were all fascinated by this idea of extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes that had bitten dinosaurs trapped in amber.
And of course a lot of good memories from band. My friends from band are some of my best friends to this day.
ANY ADVICE FOR CURRENT STUDENTS?
Follow your passion. Don’t worry about the money. Staying authentic to yourself and what you want to do is really important. Don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone. There’s a whole wide world out there.
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