Snow leopard, in quarantine at the Zoo hospital.

I had dreams of writing, even when I worked at the Zoo.  Then, I used to think I’d write my memoirs.  I figured by the time I’d put in 20 or 30 years I’d have enough memories cached away to make some interesting stories.  I even had a title for my autobiography:  Dead Mice In My Pocket.  Catchy, right?  I mean; if you saw that sitting on shelf at Barnes and Noble, you’d pick it up, wouldn’t you?

When you work with exotic animals, you get used to having a lot of odd things in your pockets, dead mice being only one of them.

It was a great career; I had a blast, made lasting friends and have treasured memories.  Animal training is every bit as rewarding and heartwarming as it looks on TV.  Exotic animals are not pets, but the emotional bonding is the same, at least on this human’s part.

I worked with sea lions, wolves, some big cats, birds of prey, many different types of reptiles, wild dogs, porcupines, and so many more.  I get asked all the time, ‘which one was your favorite?’  They all were, for very different reasons.

Paid to snuggle with wolfie!

Akela, the timber wolf, was such a funny pup.  We took turns babysitting him off site for a few weeks, before the hospital had room to quarantine him.  Those were some rough shifts let me tell you!  Daytime TV, a wolf puppy snoozing in my lap, and I’m getting paid?  Sweet!


Harpo was the first sea lion I worked with.  He was already elderly and blind by the time I started, and he was the one all trainers started on.  Harpo was the equivalent of the solid, reliable plug you put first-time horseback riders on; won’t startle, won’t bolt.  But he was no push-over, if you weren’t consistent or clear in your training, he wouldn’t work for you.  Same with Corky, the harbor seal.


Honda, the small-toothed palm civet.  Get it?  Honda…Civet…  oh well, I didn’t name him.  He really was a sweetie, but he bit so many people he intimidated most.  I learned from Honda that sometimes the loneliest ones are the ones that look the scariest at first.  Honda was a big love once you knew how to work with him, and not let him bite.


Jezebel, my sweet Harris hawk; she was nothing but joy to work with.  She came to us a naïve, untrained bird, and became one of our most reliable free-flight birds.  I’d go running up to the top of the stadium to catch her as part of the show, a glove on one hand and a dead mouse for her in my pocket.  The best part was hearing the squeals as people seated close by watched her eat; she was not dainty and entrails frequently went flying.  Nature in action, people, it’s what you came here for.


Every day, I was grateful.  “Man, they’re paying me to cuddle a cheetah!” went through my head more times than I can count.  I’m still grateful, and yeah, I do miss it.  But, right now, I’m content with my dogs, cats and chickens.  Oh yeah, and one fish.  I tell Max (he’s a Betta.  Get it?  Betta Max? **sighs**) he’s lucky he’s so small, or he’d get thrown at a sea lion.

Not really, and Max knows I’m just kidding.  He’s shaking his fins at me right now.

I was lucky enough to have that dream career.  When I was a kid, if you asked me,  “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered, “Animal trainer!”  For eight years I lived that dream, and it was glorious.  Really.

But what happens when you’ve reached a goal?  Do you stop setting them?  I loved my job, but I stopped growing, and I needed to get away from an environment that was entirely too comfortable for me.  I didn’t think in these terms when I was going through it, but in retrospect I can see that I needed to grow in ways that my animal training career and lifestyle couldn’t provide.  So I uprooted and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, and learned about new goals, and how to grow.

What’s your dream job?  Do you have it?  Are you seeking it?  Have you reached your goals?

I love hearing from you!  I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read and comment and I value your insights and opinions.

18 Responses

  1. Wolfie is beautiful. Your job for eight years must have been fantastic.
    My dream job is to be a paid novelist, something I’m still aiming for. I loved English in school and was always writing short stories and Buffy fan fiction growing up, so it was no surprise I ended up in publishing, though not book publishing.

  2. Flipping gorgeous, Serena! Thanks for brightening my day with this post. 🙂

    As a writer, I have my dream job. Still dreaming of course, but grateful every day.

  3. What a wonderful job to have, but I totally understand the moving on. I get that. I’ve done that. One of my staff just resigned for the same reason. right now i’m in the perfect job. I am not usually stressed out by work and can usually manage my duties every day. I am also in the enviable position that I’m the only person in the province who knows what I know. which means a bit of job security. and the position keeps growing, so I’m content. and I have the energy to blog and comment and tweet and fb. so it’s all good.

    1. I am so glad you’re happy where you are! Not very many people are truly happy in their jobs. While what pays the bills may not be my passion, it is nonetheless a job I take pride in, and I’m grateful to have such a congenial workplace. Next dream job…best-selling author!

  4. Just love your animal posts, Serena. Don’t know if I could have given something like that up, but I understand what you mean about the need to grow outside your comfort zone. Your memoir will definitely be fascinating! I’m currently working toward my perfect job, day by day 🙂

  5. So glad you had the courage to follow your dreams and just go for it! I’m too conservative and too much of a worry wart to do that, but I do work slowly towards smaller goals.

    Writing is a new dream of mine. Only started about 3 years ago but I’m enjoying it and can’t wait to get published. That’s my dream now!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a JansenSchmidt

  6. I love, love, love this post. What zoo were you at? That would be my third favorite job. Being a mom is my first, of course being a writer is a super close second. I almost went into animal training, but literature took hold and I never looked back.

    The pictures of your animals are glorious. I am so excited to see you snuggling with a wolf. Awesome! My husband’s aunt works with rescue animals and always has a bizarre thing in her freezer. Sometimes it’s an entire raccoon they needed her to save for testing or whatever.

    Thanks again for sharing your sweet animal friends with us. Your word play jokes are hilarious, but the way. I was totally laughing.

    1. Thank you, Tameri! I worked at the San Diego Zoo in the 90’s, you were at Sea World, right? I worked there too, but was more like a marine biology teacher, no animal work.

      Rescue is great work! I’d love to get into volunteering, but the time commitment, no can do right now. Kudos to your husband’s aunt, that is very cool, but very tough work!

      Glad you enjoyed the word play, I know it’s a little cheesy, but fun!

      1. How did I miss this? You were at the San Diego Zoo in the 90s?! I probably saw you there. More than once. Small world. Love the pics and the stories. Animal trainer is one of my early childhood dreams that resurfaces periodically. Even my vet has encouraged me to be a vet tech. But for now, I’m focusing on my novels. Great post, Serena!

  7. What a great post and gorgeous pictures! When I was a corporate graphic artist, people at my office used say “wow, you have a fun job!” Thing is, after years of designing the same kind of project for the same product, it still got boring. A career change into web design, then programming was my solution. Programming’s great because there’s always something new to learn, but yet… I’d like that “bestselling author” for my next job, too!

    1. It was bittersweet to realize the dream job didn’t ‘work’ any more, but the adventure of starting fresh was so exciting! I know you’ll get that ‘bestselling author’ job too!

  8. Hi Serena! Boy oh boy am I ever late to this party!!! How was your summer? I think I remember you had some surgery and needed to take some time away. I did see your post the other day on our WANA1011 Facebook page. It was so great to see you! I love this post. I’m sorry that I missed it. Did you see the big cats on my blog the last two weeks? You will melt my friend. You of all people would appreciate the wildlife with your background. So glad to hear you’re going to start posting soon and that you’re feeling better! We missed you Serena! 🙂

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