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The Zoo Saved My Life

By Dominick Dorsa II
min read

As I embark on my 28th year as a zoological professional, I reflect on my experience of navigating the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ community while gay. My journey started on the streets of the lower east side of New York City in a single parent household, receiving government assistance in an environment which dictated my path had only two options: incarceration or death.

Desperate to survive and break the societal norm for folks like me, I had a chance encounter in my early 20s which would save my life. On the advice of a friend, I applied for my first animal keeper position at the Bronx Zoo in the Bronx, N.Y. To my surprise, and almost disbelief, I received an interview and was hired all in the same day.

It was the early 90s, and I found myself thrust into a professional environment in which I was completely unfamiliar. As a closeted gay man in my 20s, who shortly prior to being hired at the Zoo attempted to come out as gay, found myself homeless living on the street, I was cautious, quiet, became hyper aware of my mannerisms, and made a concerted effort to “act straight.” I had a perceived fear of being “found out,” and felt I would have experienced ridicule and shame from my peers too unbearable to overcome.

On 23 February 2003, now in my 30s, I was outed at work by the one co-worker I confided in. My heart sank, my world was shattered, and I thought, “Surely I have to resign and I have to do it right now.”

In that moment I could not think clearly and decided to call my family and out myself. Surrounded by okapi and red river hogs, there I was crying uncontrollably while saying the words “Mom, I’m gay”. Thankfully she was supportive and receptive which gave me strength.

I decided to take control of the situation and put the power of who I am back into my hands. On my lunch break, I walked to every animal keeper area and told all of my co-workers “I am gay,” and each co-worker embraced me and let me know everything would be okay. Admittedly, I had no faith in being accepted, but was relieved my fear was unfounded.

Since then, my career path has grown exponentially, and as I’ve transitioned into leadership roles, I noticed a lack of LGBTQ inclusion and more so, acceptance within AZA. I can recall being excited to attend my first AZA Mid-Year Meeting (2008) and eager to be surrounded by colleagues all with the same mission. Although we were attending a professional event, many attendees I encountered were quite casual in expressing their homophobic, racist, and misogynistic views. I decided in that very moment to be the voice of change and representation for colleagues like myself.

Following conversations with AZA colleagues voicing my concern over the lack of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance of LGBTQ professionals in our field, I decided to become a mentor for zoological professionals like myself who share my experience. Through networking with colleagues, several animal care staff have reached out to me for assistance navigating AZA and career development. Every individual seeking my guidance has experienced negativity in the workplace due to identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

When I started my career, there wasn’t anyone who looked like me or seemed to identify like me. I am now proud to be a role model, create safe space, and provide a means of support for everyone that identifies as part of a marginalized group. If it weren’t for my zoological career and someone taking a chance on me, I am not sure where I would be. Hence, The Zoo Saved My Life title to this piece.

As we talk more about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we need to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I’m hopeful with the changes we are seeing within our profession, there will be representation all of us can relate to, now and in the future.

Photo Credit: ©Julie Larsen Maher, Wildlife Conservation Society

Dominick Dorsa II is the Vice President of Animal Care at the San Francisco Zoo.

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