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A keeper’s journey to the Zoo

One question animal department folks often get asked is, how did we get here? For some, there is a relatively straightforward answer: “I was in college, I love animals, I got an internship at Zoo Atlanta (or whatever zoo), then there was a keeper position open, and I got it!” In some cases, their career with the Zoo may even go ALL the way back to time as a Volunteen! For some of us, though, the path is more indirect. However, no matter their path to being here, those of us who work with animals have one thing that links us all together: a passion for animals and their well-being!

I have one of those very indirect pathways. As the year winds down, many of us think on years past and what’s in store for next year. So, if you’ll indulge me, I am going to fill you in on how THIS particular zoo person got where he is today (in as abbreviated a way as I can).

I have always loved animals, particularly the scaly and slimy varieties, for as long as I can remember. My mother was less than thrilled with all the lizards and frogs that I brought home nearly every day. Despite her reluctance, she allowed me to bring them inside to place into jars and terrariums to watch for a couple days at a time, after which they all went back to their proper outdoor homes. My mother was very good about taking me to the Jacksonville Zoo and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, probably far more times than she wanted to! We would occasionally “play hooky” on weekdays to visit when they were less crowded. What a way for a reptile-centric kid to spend a day out of school!

My fascination/obsession continued through my childhood and high school. At that time, I began keeping geckos at home. I even occasionally kept, without my mother’s knowledge, snakes under my desk (sorry Mom!). I became fascinated with their behaviors and started to breed them. There’s nothing cuter than baby geckos hatching and taking their first breaths! I also started spending time hanging out in the local reptile pet shop in Atlanta (we moved here from Florida when I was 8) where I got to meet many people of all ages with similar interests. Eventually, I landed a job at this shop, and my home population of scaly critters grew exponentially, as well as my access to knowledge about them. It was there I met one of the most influential people of my entire career (which I wouldn’t realize until several years later). Despite the various twists and turns, it was ultimately this person, who at the time was a plant/frog specialist at Atlanta Botanical Garden, that helped set my career path for good!

After attending and dropping out of college (stay in school, kids!), I began working in the family mortgage business, which, no offense to my family, was less than satisfying. I still dabbled in herpetology, still maintaining a population of various species at home and volunteering time with our local herp society to do field surveys in local parks on weekends. My passion was animals, and eventually I left the mortgage company to follow that passion. I got back into the animal field in a large-scale pet facility where I ended up reconnecting with my friend from the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He introduced me to the new Curator of Herpetology at the time, one Dr. Joe Mendelson. There weren’t any keeper positions open at the time, but as soon as one opened up, I was on it like a gecko on glass! I applied for the job and I guess the rest is history! There have CERTAINLY been some other adventures from then up to now, but I’ll leave you hopefully not bored at this point! If you want to know more, I guess you’ll have to look me up someday in Scaly Slimy Spectacular and ask!

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and a happy 2019!
Robert Hill
Assistant Curator of Herpetology

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