Jamie Kuntz, A&E Editor
When I tell people that I spend my summers working at a zoo, they generally react in one of two ways: 1) “Have you ever gotten to pet a tiger?” or 2) “Oh, so you just shovel poop all day?” They’re always surprised to hear that I’ve done neither of these things, but I always make sure to tell them that I do spend 40 hours a week with the most terrifying animals of all: children.
The Fort Worth Zoo’s education department sponsors a summer program as part of which kids ranging from preschool to sixth grade can come to learn about animals and do really cool crafts. In every classroom there’s a teacher, two or three teaching assistants and a few teenage volunteers. I’m one of the TAs, though I’m not quite sure if that job title accurately sums up what I do. On different occasions, I’ve been a tour guide, a therapist, a storyteller and, more often than not, a pack mule. I’ve been scratched and cried on, and, on one occasion that I do not want to relive ever again, have even been puked on. I spend most of my time outside in the Texas summer heat trying to herd children to their destination, and I am generally so exhausted by the time I leave work that I pass out on the couch and have no energy to do anything else until I have to get up the next morning to do it all over again.
But honestly, it’s the best job in the world.
Zoo Camp is educational, but it’s also camp – the kids should learn, yes, but we also want them to have fun. Showing children the animals every day is the perfect way to get them to learn; the munchkins are endlessly curious and always have tons of questions, so that makes my job easy – I just need to know the answers to their questions. I’ve stored up a vast amount of animal trivia in my TA career, all of which is vitally important at work but a bit useless elsewhere. In fact, I’ve gotten a lot of weird looks from classmates when I start to tell them about the differences between a possum and an opossum, or when I mention that lions are crepuscular.
You have to be a little crazy to survive as an education-department staff member – a lot of times I’ve had to come up with a craft, game or even an entire lesson plan on the spot. One time, when the teacher was out of the room and the children were beginning to mutiny, my fellow TA and I turned off the lights, put on calming music and made the kids do yoga.
The scary thing was that that was the calmest they were the entire week.
Though my job is chaotic and exhausting, I miss it horribly during the school year. I miss the kids and my coworkers, and I miss the luxury of getting to see the animals every day. Luckily, the Fort Worth Zoo isn’t very far away from campus, so I can go back whenever I want. I’m biased, of course, because it’s my favorite place in the world, but I think that everyone should go there at least once – now would be a good time, since we have not only one but two adorable baby elephants, born just this past summer, and a brand-new baby jaguar. And hey, if you think you need a tour guide, just let me know – I’m an expert.