Fueling a Passion for Training

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

Teaching kids dance and training animals are similar, but can be challenging in different ways. On one hand, kids get distracted and can be difficult to calm down, and on the other, animals and trainers don’t have a common language and communication takes precision and patience. Kelly Elkins learned just that as she transitioned from a dance teacher to pursuing a career relating to animals. She’s now a lead animal trainer working with animal ambassadors to educate the public.

As is the plight of many people who want to work with animals, Ms. Elkins thought her main option was becoming a vet. She began a vet technician program, but didn’t realize the emotional toll being a vet dealing with sick and dying animals. She was steered off that path by her pet leopard gecko’s vet who said she likely couldn’t handle it. Lucky for her because Ms. Elkins was able to find what she is passionate about through the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program at Moorpark College.

The EATM program is hard work; Ms. Elkins was physically and mentally exhausted after long days of classes and work at the college’s zoo. Once students have a bit of experience under their belts, they begin working directly with the animals under the zoo’s care. A day could look like waking up at 5 am to clean enclosures at 6 am for 2 hours, attending difficult classes, returning to make the animals diets and feed them, taking more classes, then returning home around 6 pm to do homework.

In October of Ms. Elkins first year at Moorpark, wildfires came close to their campus. She was with around nine other first year students who needed to evacuate the animals. At that point, they hadn’t begun interacting with the animals and needed to help them without any prior trust built between them. They evacuated all of the birds and began helping the other animals under smoky conditions. With only a third of the collection ready to be transported, the firefighters kicked them off campus for their own safety. These students and faculty sat for hours with the evacuated animals in a shopping center parking lot wondering what they would return to. It was then that Ms. Elkins discovered things about herself and her capabilities. That difficult situation showed her that she could do much more than she believed and that she was going in the right direction for her career. She found that this was what she was passionate about, and there was nothing she’d rather do.

While in school and throughout her career, Ms Elkins has mastered effective training techniques. Training is dependent on precision and clarity in the communication between two different species. This is communicated through the timing of visual and auditory cues and rewards. Timing is an essential skill every trainer needs to master. In clicker training, for example, a click needs to happen as soon as the animal performs the desired behavior. If it’s too late, you might train the wrong behavior. Ms. Elkins also needs to keep the ambassador’s attention and cater her training style to specific animals. Every individual is motivated by different things. Finding what an animal wants and building  the association between cues, actions, and rewards is apart of the long and difficult process leading up to an animal being ready to be an ambassador. The cues to encourage a behavior also need to respect the strengths and limitations of certain species. If an animal has very poor eyesight, cues need to be verbal and visa versa.

Fast forward and Ms. Elkins has been working in the Animal Connections Department of the San Diego Zoo for 13 years and is now a lead animal trainer. She and her coworkers train animal ambassadors behaviors that allow them to show off their unique characteristics to the public. The current program, Animals in Action, is an hour long presentation that showcases the natural behaviors of the ambassadors while allowing Ms. Elkins to share conservation messages. Overall, their main goal is to help the audience foster a connection with these animals that will lead them to change their behavior in order to help those species.

Through her current position, Ms. Elkins has the opportunity to use her skills and interact with the animals she loves as well as share her passion with Zoo guests. She can share messages, like using sustainable palm oil, that will protect the wild counterparts of the animals she loves. Her job can build the public’s love for animals, and hopefully yours as well.

Carly, Careers Team
Week 5, Winter Session 2018

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