Where the Wild Things Are - Spring 2010 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Spring 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

By Shari R. Routch

Like many college freshmen, Penn State Altoona student Jasmine Almonte had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. With agriculture as a "starter major," Almonte knew only that she wanted to work in the animal field in some capacity. "I've wanted to work with animals since I was a child. I was always trying to help injured and abandoned wildlife. I'd bring home an injured or orphaned bird and try to rehabilitate and reintroduce it," Almonte recalls. "When I was 12, a car hit a rabbit and the rabbit was hopping clumsily. A police car had stopped traffic to move the rabbit away from ongoing traffic. The officer and my mother were trying to move the poor soul, but it kept hopping away from them. I decided to give it a shot. When I knelt down by the rabbit, it literally jumped into my arms. I then took it to the nearest grassy patch away from the traffic. It was a great feeling."

With guidance from professors, Almonte chose to major in Environmental Studies with a minor in Natural Science. By her junior year, she had obtained an internship at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Blair County, where she learned to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. For the first time, she experienced hands-on animal husbandry (i.e., cleaning, caring, and feeding), capture and release of animals back to the wild, restraint, and nutrition, as well as assisting vets in medical procedures. Notes Almonte, "I found out quickly that non-profit work was very physical and emotionally draining, yet it still felt very rewarding. This internship helped my drive toward a career working with animals."

While at Penn State Altoona, Almonte became very involved in extra-curricular clubs and activities, hoping it would guide her in her future plans. States Almonte, "I went a bit overboard! I became a representative in student government for three years because it was important to me to be pro-active on my own campus, voting on proposals, and sharing a voice with fellow students." She also became a chair-person and representative for Penn State's THON and participated in the forty-eight-hour dance marathon at the University Park campus two years in a row, joined Eco-action and other environmental clubs where she helped with Earth Day, recycling efforts, clean-ups, went on field trips, and learned about environmental awareness. Almonte adds the International Student Association, Urban Dance Troupe, and participation in a multitude of campus activities to her resume. Quips Almonte, "For those who know the movie Rushmore, I became the character of Max Fischer."

During her senior year, Almonte worked part-time at the local humane society, helping to find homes for abandoned and unwanted domesticated animals, and shelter abuse/neglect cases. "There were an unprecedented number of cats and dogs at the shelter; it was truly an emotional job for me. Some animals were very difficult to adopt, so naturally I wanted to take all of them home with me." By the time of her graduation in 2003, Almonte unfortunately had not lined up a job. "So I decided to move back home to New Jersey," she states. "And, yes, I couldn't help it; I did adopt a dog - just one though!"

Hoping to try all possible animal professions to find her niche, Almonte found a vet-technician job. "I soon realized it was not my dream occupation," she states. So while she worked there five days a week, Almonte decided to try volunteering at the Bergen County Zoo in Paramus, New Jersey.

"For just one day a week, I did everything a zoo keeper does — exotic animal husbandry for predominately North and South American mammals, birds, reptiles, and even bugs. It was the coolest job ever! I learned so much about animal behavior, natural history, and conservation, and also watched exotic animal vet procedures; zoo-keeping just felt right," Almonte states.

Almonte continued to volunteer her time, worked extremely hard, never missed a day of work, and patiently waited for a zoo keeper position to open. And then, eight months later, it happened. Hired as an official zoo keeper for the Bergen County Zoo, Almonte continued to advance her knowledge in her field. She enrolled at Columbia University to pursue continuing education in conservation biology and then landed an incredible internship studying polar bear behavior at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. An advanced zoo-keeping course at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as well as a Callitrichid Behavioral Husbandry and Management Workshop followed. To Almonte, the sky was the limit.

After three and a half years working in the small Bergen County Zoo, Almonte began looking toward bigger and better things. "I wanted to work with animals from other areas of the world, like Africa and Asia," states Almonte. "I applied to different zoos around the United States, and I even considered moving to a different country to study wildlife."

Her determination paid off, as Almonte landed a zoo-keeping job at the world-famous San Diego Zoo in 2007. The San Diego Zoo's mission is to be the leader in conservation, education, and recreation. The institution is dedicated to the reproduction, protection, and exhibition of animals, plants, and their habitats. Almonte adds, "It is a research powerhouse, dedicated to educating the public on issues affecting wildlife such as climate change, the Bush meat trade, habitat loss, and the conservation of endangered species." Almonte was afforded the opportunity to train and care for African and Asian species, as well as educate the public about conservation.

"I love my job," states Almonte. "The animals are amazing! I am able to learn about their behavior and intelligence, train them for physicals and vet procedures, and even hang out with the cute baby animals. My job challenges me physically and mentally."

What does the future hold for Almonte? "The San Diego Zoo offers keeper loans that send their keepers to different zoos around the world to work with particular species," she states. "There are field conservation projects, zoo conferences, and visit-a-job openings, so there are many opportunities to travel." Almonte also is considering going to graduate school. She advises other college students, "If the drive is there, you can do it. I did!"