Farmer File: The bottom line of monkey business

Don Farmer makes a point during his dual presentation with wife Chris Curle.

Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff

Don Farmer makes a point during his dual presentation with wife Chris Curle.

— When you were growing up, did you think you'd like working with animals for a living some day?

A lot of American children have visions of making a life and a living tending to the likes of Flipper, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or maybe a family of gentle giraffes. Some of the several thousand graduates from Collier County schools this year may have that thought. But the key phrase is "making a living."

One local enterprise with a workplace that has a special allure is Naples Zoo. We asked Executive Director David Tetzlaff about the workaday realities of a career with the critters.

While our zoo continues breaking attendance records, David meets a lot of job seekers.

"As I make my rounds at the zoo, I'm often asked about the chances of getting work here," he says.

"I was told recently there are more positions open for a rookie NFL player than for a zookeeper. This is one of the most competitive fields in the world. For example, the last time we hired a keeper, we had 200 applications in a week. Imagine what bigger zoos are getting."

Another factor is the illusion that zoology is an idyllic lifetime of leafy strolls through life with mild-mannered mammals, relaxed reptiles and beautiful birds.

For those kind souls, Tetzlaff has a news flash.

"You have to build your resume with as much experience as possible. What we look at is not specifically zoology, biology or environmental science.

"We hire people with forestry degrees, interest in the natural world. Also, it's critical what you do between classes. Did you work part time job at a vet clinic? Did you volunteer at a nature center or a zoo?

"That's going to look a whole lot better to us than working at a fast-food place."

Naples Zoo often hires graduates from the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville. It's a college level program but many students don't finish.

"Over 30 percent of the class will drop out because zoo-keeping is hard work. It's not about bottle-feeding lion cubs; it's about shoving a hundred pounds of zebra dung through the dirt.

"It's a shock to people that it's not fun and games. A zoo is really an exotic farm with a lot of backbreaking, sweaty, nasty work and you've got to love this. Being an animal lover is not good enough."

Happy job search, nature.

Don Farmer is a former ABC News correspondent and bureau chief and CNN news anchor. He can be reached at

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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