Shannon Reedy is a zoo professional with nearly 26 years of experience. She is currently the Education Specialist with the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, IL where they have over 6,500 individuals in their programs with approximately 250 students participating in their Junior Zookeeper program each year. She believes it’s important to make informed and educated opinions, particularly when there are many strong voices around. She is passionate about educating the next generation and is a mom of several rescue dogs!
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Shannon Reedy is the education specialist at the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from Manchester University and is passionate about lifelong learning. In her time at the Indianapolis Zoo, she cared for and trained a variety of species, including raptors, dolphins, polar bears and small exotics like reptiles and parrots. In Shannon’s current role with the Miller Park Zoo, she manages all education programs, including the junior zookeeper teen education and volunteer program, outreach programs and on site programs for groups where she is passionate about educating the next generation.
Hey, Shannon, welcome to the program. Thanks. It’s good to see you. I’m so glad to have you and I’m so excited to learn from you. So you get to start us off. Tell us about you and how you came to be in this profession. That’s a really great question. I had no intention of being in this profession and yet, here I am. And it’s not an anti anything. It’s just my path. It mean, just to kind of give you a baseline about me. I’ve been a 20 year resident of Illinois now, but I was raised in Indiana. So I ended up in college for biology and got a BS degree and figured out what to do with it via an internship. Back when I was in school, internships were not common, so I had to kind of create my own thing there. So what did you get as an internship? I interned at Abby Indianapolis Zoo. Okay. And I was there just to try to figure out what it meant to be in a zoo. I entered in an interesting time. Busy profession, because it was crossing over from me. When I was a kid would go to the zoo. Right? But we never saw a keeper. I didn’t know really what one was. Besides, what was in storybooks? Men in the yellow hat. I didn’t know. I’m 21 years old and I don’t know what a zookeeper really is. And I thought, “boy, that would be an interesting thing to use my biology.” Before I was one of those people who wanted to use my degree. So went to Indianapolis and just learned what the aspects were. I actually was positioned in the Education Department, mostly because then I could get a great visual of the zoo. I wasn’t just in the elephant barn. I wasn’t just in the Dolphin Pavilion. I was visiting there to do a project for education, visiting this area and visiting that area. So I got a really well rounded look at the zoo in general, and it made me really love the idea of being there all the time. So after graduation, I ended up with a seasonal position, which is how you begin working in a zoo. If you want to build the resume, I guess for zoo as how you get zookeeper positions are very few and far between. And I did mean that geographically, sometimes there’s not, as you want every corner. That’s a terribly hard question for me to answer. There are about 250 accredited zoos, okay? In North America. And then there are several other facilities that are not accredited. About 3000 I believe, USDA licensed facilities. Which means that they can collect a fee to enter their facility. A bit of a difference in standards and that sort of thing. Just the accreditation process. So I ended up learning a whole lot and making a nice path, making some contacts there at the zoo. I did my work and I did the best I could, tried really hard. And I ended up as a seasonal zookeeper starting after graduation. And then I’m just never left the job. I was in that job in zookeeper. I moved up from a temporary position to a permanent position and then worked in a couple of different areas working with different animals, training different animals, and it was spectacular. And I love being a keeper. I look clean in barns. I just think somebody’s gonna do it right? I’m a fan, you know you’re certain person if you like that kind of thing, and I am. But one of the things that both of the areas I worked, we did a lot of demonstrations for our guests. So there was a lot of talking to people. Lot of one on one Q and A. There was a lot of just narrating to 1600 people in a dolphin pavilion, and I really dug that. I like that a lot. I found it to be just fascinating. I still love Q and A, and it’s still my favorite part of a program. I can tell him what I think is important. But at the same time, I want feedback. I want to know what else we want to know. So even starting then, that was my favorite thing, and it just really led me into education. I did an education position, outreach position at Indianapolis for a couple years before I came here to take my position here as education specialist. So in Indy I got a lot of amazing experiences and made a lot of friends and a wonderful facility. Fell in love with walrus. They’re my heart. Everybody’s got an animal that’s their thing. What is it about the walrus? It’s almost ethereal. It’s hard to explain. They’re so intelligent. I knew they were adorable because they just are, but meeting them, getting to know them and working with them. They are so intelligent. They have outstanding personalities. They just come shining through. They were just phenomenal. Now it’s time for Q and A because there’s a question I’ve always wanted to know. Why do the walruses have their long tusks? What is the purpose? Well, it’s mostly for hauling out of the water onto ice floats. It’s their grip. A lot of people think it’s for digging on the ocean floor for their clams and other food. They can use that in some way, but it gets so long, they’re really not useful for that anymore. They mostly use their vibrissae on their face. But they use those mostly for hauling out onto the ice floats and also for battling for a spot because they tend to gravitate towards each other, living in large groups or haul out in large groups. And they gotta find their spot or take one, you know. So that’s interesting fact for today. So Yeah. So now you’ve been at this for 20 plus years now? Yeah, About 26. Wow. And every day is probably different than the last. It really is. No, two day’s the same, which really appeals to me. I’m a collect it kind of person. And I enjoy change for the good. So for me, this is expecting the unexpected is really just what you have to be ready for. And I love that. I think that’s phenomenal. I have traditional elements in my job. I answer the phone, I scheduled programs. I write curricula. It’s that stuff. Keep a database of those bad words. But at the same time across the door, I have a snake friend to pull out and help me detox from the computer time or just inspire me. They need love, too. So it’s nice to have that kind of mix of things going on of activity. I think that’s wonderful for me. Yeah, because I was gonna ask you, like, what is an average week look like for you? That’s a great question. A lot of it depends on time of year because different times of year, we have different types of programs going on different activity going on. The warmer weather is more busy here in the middle of Illinois. Obviously, we’re a temperate zone. We get a lot of seasonal weather and extreme seasonal weather, but we are a zoo that’s open, year round. We’re only closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day. So it’s wonderful to visit when it’s off season because you get the place to yourself. Mostly, the animals are super happy to be in the cool weather in the summer. They feel like we feel, and they are just wanting to sit in the shade. You know, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable as we are, you know they can tolerate it. But yeah, in the winter. “Hey, I feel good. I’m running around”. And they’re much more enjoyable to watch, so it’s kind of fun. But at the same time, most things do slow down from someone on the ground perspective. Although we have a program going on currently, as I speak, we have a home school group that’s here getting a program with my associates, and we do school programs all year. Obviously they’re in class and in session this time of year. Spring and fall are the most popular time. May at the zoo, ask any educator about May at the zoo. It’s field trip season, and it’s 5000 kids a day and it’s a lot. It’s a lot. We’re glad they’re coming. Sure, they all shout at once, kind of thing. But then summer is classes and camps and so much going on, which is terrific. And we have a very, very large, especially for zoo, our size but large in general. Team education, volunteer program, culture, zoo keepers, Which takes up a lot of my time in my work time, but that’s the way it should be. It’s a wonderful program, and it’s kind of my personal baby at this point. I’ve been managing it for 20 years, so it’s phenomenal. It’s a really great opportunity for young people to get involved in the zoo regardless of what they’re gonna end up doing in their life’s work. Most who graduate out of the program don’t go into an animal field at all. They’ve just gained life skills and an appreciation for wildlife and wild things stewardship. That sort of thing is really important things that come away with, but that is, that’s a really big program. Summer volunteering is intense for them, so that’s a big part of my life. And then during the school year, we have classes on Saturdays and sometimes field trips. In fact, tomorrow we’re going on a field trip to the Indianapolis Zoo to go see some of my old friends and go see the holiday lights over there. So it should be a good time. Nice.
For some of these programs that you’re doing. Are you putting together all the content? Walk me through it. What does one of these programs looks like? That’s a big question, depending on what the program is. We have a few different things. A lot of our programs are for school groups, or we go out t the grounds to schools or to libraries or preschools. We go to senior facilities. Most of those are what we call an animal encounter. So we’re basically introducing all these folks to a few of our program animals. We have a group of animals that we use for programs specifically trained for that work, and they love it. They have to love it or we won’t let them do it. But they’re great ambassadors for their species and for a visit in general. So we just like to share their story more about their natural history. Introduce them personally to the folks that we meet. Let them get up close with touch, having an encounter. So that’s something that we do a lot of, as a program. We do have some specific course based content in some of our programs, and paperwork. She goes scavenger hunt out in the zoo and see what you can find, that’s based on this topic. So those are great for curriculum items for teachers. Oftentimes we’ll use it as a unit wrap up for a unit introduction, which is phenomenal. Now you really get to educate all across the city on every different area. Yeah, we are 4.5 acres of happiness and wonderful things going on. But yeah, it’s great because we do have a large variety of species and so we’re able to really hit a lot of, a lot of different topics, which is great.
How did you come to amass all that knowledge? Right, Because obviously, in your undergrad, you studied some stuff, but you must have this wealth of knowledge about all sorts of different animals now. I kind of have become in my family and friends circle, the ‘Oh-Text-Shannon’. “What’s this snake I found in my garage? Shannon”. I’m not always the answer girl, but I usually know somebody who is so we network. Honestly, it just is my job to know, and that’s the best way I can say it. Fortunately, when you start working with specific species, you can be a little more general sometimes and understand general facts. When I was a zookeeper, I did not use my biology degree at all. Maybe think about this. If you are interested in going into a zoo keeper profession, animal science is your preferred major. That’s the one that’s gonna get you the experiences of a keeper, the good programs at those schools. They have a farm setting, so they’re learning how to the manage and handle animals. You’re not necessarily going to be a keeper and work with a cow, but you might work with a yak. And that’s you know, leading the yak is going to be feel similar to leading a cow. So it’s those understanding how the bodies work, and the animals move, and cleaning up after them, and those skill sets. How to use a room in a house and it’s so important. That sounds very menial, but it’s really not. It’s a science, honestly, and you learn about observation, observing animals and really understanding their behavior, what that means about their health. But that means about their level of contentment. It’s like that, their need for enrichment. There’s so much to it that you can learn despite being around animals. And this is for pet owners, too, you know, if really look at them like that, you can pull those things from them. So that’s a great step for a keeper is to have an undergrad experience in animal science. I think that really helps. My biology degree, I did not use it at all. Because that’s not what that is. I used to walk around when I was sweeping or raking the lawn. The yard and I would go through the equation of photosynthesis in my head just so I wouldn’t forget it, so I would have wasted that semester had I found it. I don’t know when I got into education. Now I use my degree all the time because it’s so much about just concepts, its ecology there, so much ecology and what we teach. There’s so much basic anatomy and biology. The physiology stuff is so prevalent it’s how the body works. It’s how these individual animals, what do they need and how is that they get that based on their adaptations, their physiology. So a lot of the knowledge that you gain is just, it makes sense when you keep adding to those specific animals. We’ve just gotten a ringtail. Let me learn about a ring tail. So I brushed up on all that stuff, and then it kind of fits in a nice pockets in my brain about how well it’s like this. So it’s similar to these pieces that it’s like it’s some one of these species and that that really does help the compartmentalization. I have to say that don’t quiz me on pop culture because there’s only so much room for things in my brain. So you’ll be great in a trivial pursuit contest. But only if we got the animal category, Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. I don’t know if anybody else does this, but my friends and I in college we would watch Jeopardy. And between all of us we had an accountant major, math major, a psych major, history major, and a bio major, oh and, a chemistry major. And we would run the categories, but that’s the only way we could do it. So your dream is that you wake up on jeopardy and all the categories are all about animals, and you’re like I got this out. Bingo.
So now what does the future look like? You’ve been at this for a while. What’s next for you? That’s a tremendously interesting question. Hopefully, something awesome. I really don’t know. I’m one of those people who has open door policy in my future things. I didn’t know I’d be doing something like this with you, and I’m excited to be doing it. I like to just kind of wait and see what comes up. I really don’t know. I don’t have any plans to leave where I’m at, but I can’t imagine not having animals in my daily life. I do have my four babies at home, but it’s different to when they’re my babies and these guys are my co-workers and it feels different, you know, them at home and these guys here. But I can’t imagine being in an office without an armadillo across the way. Just it doesn’t feel right. So I was not sure. Although I might work in a flower shop. I just don’t know. I have a lot of different interests, and sometimes it’s appealing to think about going in a different direction and okay, well, the things I’ve learned here and the things I’ve been able to do, I use a different perspective on that go a different way and see what that brings out from my skill set. I love that. So now do you have, like, a daily routine of animals and your buddies that you’re going to check on every day when you come in? I gotta figure, do you go to the Walrus every day be like,”Hey, good morning. Got my coffee.” I do not have walrus here. I wish I did. I’d love them from afar, now. When I get into my office, I’m often the first person in this building, which is a mixed exhibit building. It’s probably lab, and we have a gallery area which has lots of different types of animals in it. We have meerkats. We have a coral reef fish tank. We’ve got birds called our car a little tucans. We’ve got lots of frogs and snakes and hell of monsters, and we’ve got a lot of different things going on in that building, plus some interactive games and activities that people can do just a nice indoor space. But in our kitchen area, we’ve got all my program animals. And so when I walk in, I always hear first thing I hear one of my guinea pigs Carmen, squealing at me. She knows it’s me, and she knows that I’m the snack lady. So sometimes that this isn’t every morning. I don’t want to get in trouble with my keeper friends, but I will often head over to the refrigerator and see if there are scrapes available and that sort of thing. So hand Carmen 1, I’m in the chicken outside. He likes it, too, and then my dove is cooing at me because she likes some love and just want scratches on her head. So it’s a little bit of a good morning. A lot of times I’d rather start my day like that, then going straight into my email. Yeah, I was gonna say. So some time after lunch after done checking it with everybody, giving out snacks. You sit down and you have your morning coffee. Well, I wish I could wait till that usually things are more pressing. “Why is my phone ringing already?” But it’s fun. I often do Facebook posts, personal Facebook posts with office assistants. When I’m sitting at my desk and there’s nothing else really going on, I’ll just get one of the animals out and let him exercise, run around and just get some time out of their enclosures. And I call them my office assistants because they’re helping. So they like that out time. They like that exercise time. And that’s fun. So they can still be with me while I’m doing my job. Well, I can’t imagine a lot of jobs that you can have that, except the job, you know? And so maybe in the future keep killing at what you’re doing, it sounds like such an amazing experience. And you’ve come so far in your journey, I mean, is this where you thought you’d end up if you look back? I had no intention to teach zero. I was in college and was like education. “No, no, I’m not education not gonna teach.” I’m still not sure. I think in some cases I might be able to see myself in an actual standard classroom. But it’s very different teaching non formal versus formal education. So I’m pretty set into this mindset now and to go backwards into the more strict rigorous boundary of what we teach, how we teach, that would be a little difficult, more of a challenge. But maybe a challenge would be good for me, but yeah, I think it’s interesting. I really enjoy coming up with new ideas for programs developing partnerships with area organizations, which is neat. We have a great organization called the Ecology Action Center here and let me to normals combined city. The College Action Center, they do so much with a recycling information, with all sorts of composting help and rain barrel workshops and so many different things that involve just management of resources and education throughout the community of in the schools. And that sort of thing is wonderful. So we hooked up with them, this last summer and did a Vermicomposting workshop. Vermicomposting is where you used the worms in your compost bin, and you start out with a group of worms, red worms, red wigglers, and keep throwing in organic goods for them to just keep eating. And this was a kid class, so we had 15 parents signed their children up to come and bring him a bin full of worms. And I was excited about that because I could see the kids being excited with parents like I really it was great. So, you know, because the Ideology Action Center, educator Molly, she knows so much about composting, than we know, about worms we can teach invertebrates. Then we just kind of pulled those resources together and had a great workshop. One of the educators at our local nature center, Sugar Grove Nature Center, is an artist. Actually. She’s a trained graphic artist, but she’s terrific with pencil drawings and felting in all sorts of different media. She comes in those art classes with us, so we are going to be coming up in January. We’re gonna draw for, and we’ll show the animals will bring in the samples of hair from pelts or real alive animals. And so it’s a neat way to bring animals into other disciplines, and I think it’s just so cool. So working with other organizations around the area, who have so much to offer that we can pull together, I think it’s great. No, that’s to mention to what I do, which I like.
I’ve really enjoyed talking today and learning about what you do, and I got my question answered about Walruses. So I’m excited about that, too. Is there anything else Shannon and you wanted to mention before we wrap things up today? I just really want to encourage people to look at zoos in such a positive way. We’re doing so many things for species, whether it be, you know, animals have relatives in the wild and they’re plentiful. We’re just learning from the animals that live in our zoo so we can maintain the populations out in the wild or they’re endangered species. In the only place we find them is in zoos. So were the last bastion in some cases, and learning about animals learning about wildlife’s nature ecology. I think it just is so important because it gives us a bigger sense of stewardship and as stewardship over the Earth, stewardship over ourselves, our own cells taking care of us. I think that’s very valid. I think it’s really important, and I don’t think it should ever stop. I think we should keep learning and key exploring those options. I call myself sometimes the James Bond of Education because it’s gotta be covert sometimes. We’re gonna make a mural on the wall behind that exhibit. The animals don’t care. They’ve never seen Africa. They don’t care if that looks like Africa, but I’m gonna make sure you remember. That’s where they come from without even having read a sign. A lot of people do want to gain knowledge and just the information is really important, I think, and to just keep learning, keep gathering. And as you get older, your perspectives change so much and what was not important to you before will be important to you later. And I want to just keep, keep on learning, keep on growing in that way. So it’s important. Yeah, that’s very well stated, and I absolutely agree with you, and I really appreciate you coming on today to talk with us. It was great to be here thank you so much.
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