These Ladies Keep The ZOO Humming

Written by Amber Recker, Feature Writer
Photos by Bonnie Manning, Feature Photographer

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is one of our area’s most beloved attractions. Each year over 540,000 guests visit, and it is home to over 1,000 animal residents. Keeping everything up and running is a round-the-clock job all year round, and the zoo employs 175 people. Here’s an interesting fact: 75 percent of the zoo’s full-time staff are women.

So what’s it like to be one of the women and to work inside the adventure? Meet these four animal loving ladies…

Cheryl Piropato, Education and Communications Director
“I’ve been at the zoo for 19 years. I began working at the zoo in October 1985 as the volunteer manager. I graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio with degrees in biology and geology.”

Angela Selzer, Zookeeper for Indonesian Rain Forest
“I started at the zoo in 1996. This month marks 18 years, and it has flown by! I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in wildlife science.”

Amber Eagleson, Area Manager for African Journey
“I started at the zoo in the summer of 2000 during college. I worked the following summer, as well. After graduating from Purdue University with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology, I obtained a year-round position in the fall of 2002. I’ve been here ever since.”

Maraiah Russell, Vet Tech
“I’ve been at the zoo for 13 years. I graduated from Purdue University, with a bachelor’s of science degree in veterinary technology.”

What is your typical day like at the zoo?

Cheryl: “I oversee the zoo’s educational programs, camps, marketing, public relations, social media, public events, website, program animals, volunteer program and interpretive signage. In the winter, we do a lot of planning for the upcoming season. In the summer, we put all that planning into action.”

Angela: “I am the primary keeper of our three orangutans, Melati, Tengku and Tara, which means I have to know everything about them and their personalities. Starting at 7:40 a.m., I give them their medications, clean their exhibit and holding pens, feed them and train them for medical behaviors. I also do our Orangutan Keeper Chats throughout the summer and help educate our guests about orangutans, their natural history and the dangers they are facing in the wild. I work on special projects throughout the day and lots of laundry. At the end of the day, a second round of medications are given if needed and the inside pens are enriched for the night.”

Amber: I oversee the staff and animals in the African Journey. First, I have a brief crew meeting with the keepers in my area. This allows us to touch base about anything extra going on that day and give updates on any animal/exhibit issues. After that, I walk around Africa and look at the entire animal collection to make sure everyone appears healthy. Since no two days are alike, each day is filled with trouble-shooting problems as they arise and brainstorming with keepers about various issues. I serve as the direct liaison to the curator and the veterinary staff, communicating with them on a daily basis and submitting formal animal reports. I also recently became the chair of the Resource Conservation Task Force (aka The Green Team) and spend a lot of time working on different projects for this.”

Maraiah: “There is never a typical day. Sometimes there are routine physical exams, but if the animal is too large to bring to the hospital (a wildebeest or zebra, for example), we pack all of the equipment into the van and take it stall-side. During the procedure, I monitor anesthesia, collect blood samples, develop X-rays and clean teeth. After the procedure, I clean everything and prepare it for the next procedure. Samples are then processed by a vet tech (myself or co-worker, Jen) in the lab. At the end of the day, I again administer any treatments that are needed, and then shut all the equipment down.”

What do you like most about your job?

Cheryl: “I love working at the zoo because people love to come here! Each one of the half-million guests we see each year chose to spend their hard-earned money at the zoo. Because we are self-supporting, it’s important that we deliver an exceptional experience to every guest, so they’ll come back again and again. Secondly, I learn something new every day. I might learn a new fact about animals, see animals behave in a new way, learn about program development, meet community leaders, or discover something new by chatting with a guest. Of course, working in the beautiful zoo environment is a plus, too.”

Angela: “Even though we do the same general things each day, the animals always change it up. Whether they decide to cooperate or not, there’s rarely a dull moment. I also love that we are just a handful of people who have the opportunity to work with these amazing animals, and I try not to take that for granted.”

Amber: “I love that no two days are alike and that my office consists of 35 acres, so I get to spend a lot of my time outdoors. Ultimately though, the animals are why I love my job so much. Being able to work with and learn about a multitude of animals, some of which are highly endangered, is incredible.”

Maraiah: “I enjoy providing quality medical care for rare and endangered animals and inspiring others to care about these wild species and their habitats.”

What is your favorite attraction at the zoo?

Cheryl: “Bill the lion is one of my favorites. Getting out into the zoo to see the animals (and the guests) is a nice break from the computer and reminds me why we are here—to connect people and animals, provide an ideal venue for families to spend time together and inspire people to care about wildlife.”

Angela: “I am partial to primates. This was the case long before I started working with them. I could watch them all day. I love that our exhibit takes into account the actual natural history of what orangutans actually do in the wild. In the dark forests of Borneo and Sumatra, they never have the need to come to the forest floor. They climb through the trees for everything and even sleep up in the trees. Our exhibit keeps our orangutans active and healthy like they would be in the wild.”

Amber: “This is very difficult to answer! If I had to pick one, I’d pick the lions. Both Bill and Ina have such enormous personalities (as do all of our animals) and I know they are a crowd favorite. I love how Bill is a local celebrity—everyone knows who he is.”

Maraiah Russell, vet tech

“I can’t say I have a favorite animal; they’re all so special.” – Maraiah Russell, vet tech

Maraiah: “I can’t say I have a favorite animal; they’re all so special. I’m partial to primates, and I think I could sit and watch capuchins on the island for hours if I had the time. The tiger exhibit is high up there, too. I love to see the young tigers play in the water and pounce on each other in the forest setting.”

Outside of your day to day job at the zoo, do you belong to any other zoo-related organizations or volunteer elsewhere?

Angela: “Over the past few years, I have been helping with the Orangutan Species Survival Plan. I am also the current president of our local American Association of Zoo Keepers chapter. We are a group of keepers who work to support local and global conservation through fundraising and stewardship, to unite members and encourage professional development in animal husbandry, and to inspire people to respect and preserve wildlife and wild places.”

Amber Eagleson, Area Manager for African Journey

“Even though we do the same general things each day, the animals always change it up. There’s rarely a dull moment. (We are) just a handful of people who have the opportunity to work with these amazing animals, and I try not to take that for granted.”
– Amber Eagleson, Area Manager for African Journey

Amber: “I am a founding member of the FWCZ’s American Association of Zoo Keepers chapter, a membership association for animal care professionals to exchange information and network with one another. I recently served two years on the board of directors for the Allen County SPCA, and during this time, I chaired the Volunteer and Membership Committee and served as their interim volunteer coordinator for six months.”

Maraiah: “I am a member of Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians. I am also a member of the Little Turtle chapter of AAZK and a board member for the Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association. Beekeeping is a passion of mine, I have bees at home and I help manage hives and give lessons and demonstrations to adults and children at Tanglewood Berry Farm. I will talk about bees to anyone who is willing to listen.” 

Amber Eagleson, Cheryl Piropato, Angela Selzer and Maraiah Russell

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo employs 175 people — 75 percent of that staff are women. Amber Eagleson, Cheryl Piropato, Angela Selzer and Maraiah Russell have a combined 64 years experience serving the zoo and its animal occupants.


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