English Major Erin Russell Embraces Wildlife as Tampa Zoo Intern

By Katrina Rossos

A passion for wildlife does not always mean you have to become a research or academic professional. Tampa resident Erin Russell, a University of Florida senior studying English, has always loved animals and sought for ways to incorporate her passion for wildlife into her professional career.

I have always loved animals, and until I hit high school I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Russell said. “As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to work in a medical field, and tried to find more practical jobs and interests, and while I found some fields I was interested in, nothing really stuck. Then one day, out of the blue, I was reading an article about the zoo and thought to myself, ‘I could totally work there!’ I realized it combines a lot of my interests – teaching/education, working with people, being outdoors, and of course getting to work with animals!”

Over this past summer, Russell served as an intern in the Tampa Zoo in the Africa Department. She was lucky enough to work alongside giraffes, elephants, zebras, okapis, and rhinoceros. “We had several really crucial roles as interns. We were responsible for the care and maintenance of animal habitats, creating and setting out animal enrichment, prepping and setting animal diets, as well as participating in a lecture series and giving ‘Keeper Talks’ to guests,” Russell described.

Russell worked in two different sections of the zoo, working with either the giraffes and elephants or in the “Wild Africa” side with the rhinos. Each day typically began with preparing for enrichment, getting the food ready for the animals, and cleaning the habitats, tools, and night houses. In the afternoons, there was a lot of preparation done for animal care, including preparing the food and learning about other areas of the zoo, going on field trips, and listening to lectures.

Courtesy of Erin Russell

“This internship was really neat in that, besides our daily duties, we were also given a trainer lecture series on various aspects of why zoos train their animals. So we got to learn everything from why animals get aggressive to how and why we motivate animals, to different ways of enriching animals day-to-day lives!” Russell said.  “We also frequently discussed conservation and why zoos are so important in this.”

There was one particularly hard day at the zoo when it was 112 degrees outside and the team was understaffed. In appreciation for the hard work conducted on that day, one of the zookeepers set up a meet-and-greet for the interns with the African penguins at the zoo.

“The reason this memory stands out to me is because, despite what a challenging day it was (for both keepers and interns), this keeper made sure to take the time to let us know how appreciated we were and to organize something she knew we would enjoy,” she noted. “All of the keepers were great about that – letting us know we were important and valued – and that was one of the best parts of this program.”

The people Russell worked with she said was some of the best part of the experience. In addition making great connections and forming relationships with staff and interns, she said that she learned invaluable lessons about staying positive, being meticulous, and the significance of animal care and conservation.

Courtesy of Erin Russell

In terms of wildlife awareness, Russell said that the internship made her more knowledgeable; she learned the extent of an elephant’s intelligence, that giraffes drink water every few days, that rhino horns are made of keratin, and that the little nubs on the tops of giraffes heads are called ossicones.

While Russell enjoyed her experience in the Africa Department, she said that she believes she may be better suited for an animal education position in the future.

“ZooTampa has a pretty cool Animal Ambassadors program that interests me a lot, but I think I’d like to try working some sort of entry education job at an aquarium,” she said. “The Florida Aquarium has some really cool options for this, so I might apply to work a seasonal position there next summer!”