My family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when I was very young. My parents left Cuba for many reasons, but one of the most compelling was to provide opportunities for a better life for their children. The chance for a college education was a big part of that for them. So when it was time for me to go off to college, my parents were proud to help make that possible, even though it was a tremendous financial sacrifice for them to do so. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. But when my college major became zoology and I started talking about being a zookeeper, my parents were less than thrilled.
To be fair, they should have seen it coming. As a child, I tried to keep every animal I found in my backyard. You name it, I had it. I had rabbits, chickens, dogs, quail, mice, rats, a goat and even a pig, which my dad allowed me to bring home in his car. I caught snakes and put them in the mailbox to scare my mom. When I was seven, I went to a birthday party at the Tulsa Zoo in Tulsa, Okla., and came home telling my mom I wanted to be a zookeeper and take care of the elephant I met that day. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when my career of choice became zookeeper. But my parents were not happy to see my college education used for something they saw as a manual labor job.
I think this kind of thinking in families like mine is now reflected as we look out into our industry and notice a stunning lack of diversity, especially in positions of leadership. Many families of populations underrepresented in our field don’t want their hard-earned dollars paying for a college degree for something that they perceive is not a professional career. While I certainly don’t think this is the one and only reason for the lack of diversity we see, it was my experience in my immigrant family.
Before the time I graduated from college, zookeeping was, for the most part, not seen as a profession. The requirements were more about a person’s physical capabilities than their education. But as I was entering the field, those requirements were changing. Zoos and aquariums were beginning to require college degrees and experience with animals for entry level jobs. As our industry evolved, more and more career opportunities became available for professions outside of animal care. From marketing to conservation research, today’s institutions provide fulfilling opportunities that zoos and aquariums a generation ago could only imagine.
But it does not seem that public perception has kept up with our evolution. We often talk about how we need to get better at telling our success stories. But I think we also need to do a better job of reaching young people with parents like mine who want their children to go to college and become professionals. We need to find more effective ways to reach these underrepresented populations of young people and their parents to make them aware of all that a zoo and aquarium career can offer. You don’t have to be the kid with a goat in his back yard to want to grow up and work in our industry. You could be a kid that loves accounting or who wants to be a teacher or a researcher or … the sky’s the limit.
My career has taken me places I could never have dreamed of as a child. I’ve traveled the world and had the honor of leading two outstanding zoological institutions and the passionate, dedicated, and professional staff that have made positions at those institutions their careers. My parents have been gone for many years. I wish they could see me now. I wish they could see that their investment in my education was well spent and their support of my career choice, however begrudging it was, has made all the difference in my life.
Norberto J. (Bert) Castro is President and CEO of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo and Chair of AZA Board of Directors.