Wendy Rice on Fiona Fame and Zoo Impact

Wendy Rice on Fiona Fame and Zoo Impact

“Where is she?!” a small child shouts while pushing her face against the exhibit glass at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Hippo Cove. It’s a sunny September afternoon, and crowds of people are anxiously waiting for a glimpse of Fiona. Everyone’s cameras and smartphones are at the ready, hoping to glimpse one of the hippo family members in the water. Eventually, Fiona and her mom, Bibi, appear. The fans are elated. Fiona’s caretaker and Africa zookeeper, Wendy Rice, lets us watch as she feeds Fiona and Bibi lettuce. The mother-daughter duo emerges from the water together, first poking their ears out, then their nostrils, and eventually opening their gigantic mouths. Everyone seems starstruck. Wendy is equally excited to talk about her own role in Fiona’s story.

Interview by Myra Morehart. Photography by Jennifer Mahuet.

In memory of Henry the Hippo.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a zookeeper.

In college, when I started to decide on a career path, I thought right away that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was drawn to the medical side of things and I always loved animals. I did my very first internship and I saw a puppy with parvo and I was like, “I can’t do this,” and I realized it takes a whole other level of emotional strength that I don’t think I had at the time. Then I decided to try zookeeping and I did an internship in Memphis one summer and I was immediately hooked. Hippos were one of the first animals I worked with. The experience made a huge impression on me.

There are so many elements of this job that I Iove: We get to be outside, we get to be on our feet, and the animals themselves are just incredible. You get to know them on a personal level, in a way that so few people understand. It feels like a way to make a difference and to connect with wildlife. Working so closely with animals makes you recognize how human decisions (even though they seem small) impact everything – everything we do, as a country, as a human race, affects these guys.

Our zoo is so focused on education and conservation; it’s great. Back in the day, zoos literally just used to house animals. You’d pay your ticket price and that was it. The mission has changed so much. We are stewards of these animals and ambassadors for their wild counterparts. And we hope that you don’t just come here to be entertained and then go home. We hope that people learn stuff while they’re here and walk away thinking about the impact that they have.

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What does a typical day as a zookeeper look like?

It’s different every single day. The vast majority of what we do is cleaning. Animals are messy. We also get to focus on training, enrichment, and visitor interaction. All of the training that we do is husbandry focused – we’re not trying to get the animals to balance a ball or jump through a hoop of fire.

Everything we train our animals to do helps us to take better care of them in their captivity and essentially helps them participate in their own care and make it positive.

So, our lions, for example, are all trained for hip injections – injections just like your pets at home need to have a vaccine every year. Our lions have to have one, too – and nobody likes getting a shot – but if you work with them, you can train them to lean into it, and their reward is their favorite food.

Food is always a tool. We like to tell ourselves that they love us, and I think in some cases they form a bond with their human caretakers, but at the end of the day we’re just the people that feed them. They like us, love food.

What animals do you care for?

My current department, Africa, includes the giraffes, the lions, the painted dogs, the meerkats, the hippos, and then that whole big mix of species hoofstock and the bird exhibit. There’s a wildebeest, a kudu, a gazelle, an impala, vultures, ostrich, a pelican. So, my department is geographic. Instead of saying I’m a cat keeper and I work with all cats, I’m an Africa keeper and I work with a bunch of African animals. That’s a more progressive thing that zoos are doing. In the past, there would be a bear keeper that would just take care of the black bears, polar bears, grizzly bears, etc. Now, most zoos, in order to keep with the educational message, are trending towards geographical divides, and I love that. I love working with so many different animals instead of just one kind.

I’ve been at the Cincinnati Zoo for five years. My previous job was at the Memphis Zoo in their China exhibit, so I got to work with all Chinese species. I got to work with giant pandas, red pandas, Asian small clawed otters, deer, and various bird species.

Tell us about caring for Fiona.

In my seven years of zookeeping, I’ve never seen anything like the Fiona phenomenon. We are still all trying to figure out what it is about Fiona.

I think it’s people’s attraction to the underdog story. Everyone wants to root for the underdog and the fact that she was a preemie, so many families could just relate to her story.

You wouldn’t believe how many letters and Facebook comments we got with people sharing their stories. I think people appreciated the zoo’s transparency. It’s scary. It’s a leap of faith, to be honest, about what’s going on behind the scenes. It opens up the opportunity for things to be misinterpreted, or for people to misunderstand why things are the way they are. But at our zoo, I’m very fortunate to have incredible management, and literally all of our decisions were made with animal welfare in mind. We were thinking, “What is best for Fiona?” ”What is best for Henry?” “What is best for Bibi?” So, since we come from that angle, we don’t really have anything to hide. We’re doing the best we can.

How is Fiona handling her fame?

It’s weird… She seems to love people and she acts like such a ham sometimes. Sometimes it seems like she must know or have some sense of it all. I think she just knows that she likes people, so any opportunity to be around people she seems happy about it. She seems to maintain a pretty good relationship with her care team, which is fun for us.  

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What do you find to be the most rewarding about working with animals?

It makes you much more aware of everything. I think more about why these animals are endangered. And the answer, 99.9% of the time, is something humans are doing. Either we’ve fragmented their habitat, or we’ve encroached on it so there’s nowhere for them to live, or we’re polluting their natural environment, or burning it down and replacing it. The more you educate yourself, the more it can get kind of depressing. It feels kind of heavy and it feels like there is so much to overcome or to undo what we’ve done, but at the same time, there are so many people that pour into this zoo every single day, and they’re here because they love animals, and that’s the good news. We grab onto that… Cool, you love animals, that’s great, now here’s one little way you can show it.

Here’s a little change you can make in your life that might actually have a big impact for those animals in the wild. We can focus on the fact that you’re already here and you’re captivated because you love this animal and by the way, if you could stop using plastic straws when you go out to restaurants it would actually make a big difference.

Our whole culture is set up to be disposable everything, one-time-use everything because it makes our lives easier, but ultimately there is a price and, unfortunately, it’s usually the animals.

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Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

There have been so many over the years. But the common theme is just women who are not held down by gender roles or gender stereotypes. Anytime you see a woman that is able to break the mold and step outside of what the box has always been for women for so long... It could be in literature, in arts, in politics, or sports or anything. I’m into the feminist movement and equality for everyone.

What’s the history of female zookeepers?

Traditionally, this was a very male-dominated career field because it is so labor intensive. It’s a lot of heavy lifting; it’s dirty work. So, traditionally, that was not something women were drawn to, and it was thought women couldn’t handle it. But more and more, I think the nurturing side of the job has drawn more women to the field. And we are showing that we are just as capable of hauling 50-pound grain bags as any guy. There is a big shift. Now this field is predominantly female. However, the supervisors, the bosses, the management are still predominately male. Which is something we talk about in this industry quite a bit; we’re like, “What’s up with this, ladies?” We’re doing all of the grunt work and now we need to get women into these positions of power.

I’m proud to say I have a very strong female boss, Christina Gorsuch. She’s awesome. She’s a great role model and an inspiration.

What advice do have for women who are striving for positions of leadership?

First of all, being encouraging of one another is huge. Encourage your friends, encourage your siblings, your cousin. Encouragement and support within the female community is huge. It’s easy to pit ourselves against one another and get caught up in catty stuff.

And secondly, be brave… Just try it. It’s so much better to try and to fail than to not try at all. Be brave and take a leap of faith. Go for it.

I don’t know how much of our media focuses on telling young girls to brave. I think boys get that message a lot, but young girls get very different messages.

Words We Heard: ‘Everybody who’s anybody these days seems to work all the time.’

Words We Heard: 'Everybody is learning.'