Name: Katie Manion
Occupation: Maryland Zoo Education Manager
Neighborhood: Butchers Hill
Years in Baltimore: 9
Katie Manion is lucky. Ever since she was a child, she has wanted to work with animals; now, as an Education Manager at the Maryland Zoo, she spends her days introducing schoolchildren and other audiences to turtles, porcupines, penguins, chinchillas, and a 120-pound Indian python named Lucy.
Along with the zoo’s two other Education Managers, Manion works hard to provide all Maryland residents — schoolchildren, families, and adults — the opportunity to have personal encounters with wildlife. She is in charge of the Maryland Zoo’s Outreach Program, a program that takes education on the road. A group of specially selected critters are taken out in the Zoomobile — a sort of motorized Noah’s Ark — to schools, day care centers, senior homes and summer camps. Among other duties, Katie oversees the team of dedicated staff and volunteers that deliver these fun, entertaining, and educational programs with live animals to audiences across Maryland.
The Maryland Zoo was founded in 1876, and is the third oldest zoo in the country, behind Philadelphia (1873) and Cincinnati (1874). It actually had its earliest beginnings, however, in 1862, when Baltimore citizens began donating animals and birds to Druid Hill Park for public display, starting with four swans for the lake. Today, the 160-plus acre zoo property houses more than 1,500 mammals, amphibians and reptiles, including lions, leopards, giraffes, chimpanzees and elephants. (Elephant baby Samson turned three in March and already weighs over 2,500 pounds.) Katie, who moved to Baltimore from Pittsburgh in 2002, trained for her job with a B.S. in biology, and is currently enrolled in George Mason University’s Masters Program in Zoo and Aquarium Leadership.
Fifty different species reside in the Animal Embassy, including a Chinese alligator, a chinchilla, a small, leopard-like cat called a serval, and a 16-pound Flemish giant rabbit. Part of Katie’s job is getting the animal ambassadors accustomed to their traveling containers, which can be surprisingly small; when on the road, for example, the Chinese alligator travels in a large cooler that protects him from temperature changes, and the penguin in a modified crate. Katie points out, however, that the creatures soon get used to their containers, even to the point of climbing into them of their own free will.
While Katie doesn’t have a particular favorite among her special critters, she does admit to a special interest in what she refers to as “the more challenging animals.” Currently, these include a kinkajou called Kayla, a gentle-looking creature that resembles a cross between a monkey and a possum, but is actually a close relative of the raccoon. “I’ve spent a long time getting Kayla to feel comfortable around people,” Katie confesses. “She can definitely be challenging to work with, but it’s very rewarding to see her grow more relaxed every day.”
Is it all business at the zoo, or does she ever get to pet the creatures she trains? “Well, they’re wild animals,” Katie demurs. “Some are friendlier and more affectionate than others, but we have to respect them. They’re not pets.”
One word of warning for anyone contemplating a future in the zoo business: The hours of a job like Katie’s can be unpredictable. Her weekly routine is often dictated by momentary circumstance, and while she mostly works nine to five, she sometimes also needs to work in the evening or on weekends. While it’s not part of her job to feed the animals or clean out their cages, she does need to keep an eye on their wellbeing while they are out on the road. The animals do occasionally get sick, Katie points out, so there’s a veterinary team permanently on staff, but most of their duties involve day-to-day preventative care and conducting the animals’ annual physical exams.
Do things ever go wrong on the road? “When it comes to the animal ambassadors, we’re careful to select species and individual animals that behave well around people,” Katie points out. “That said, when you’re working with children and animals, anything can happen. I’ve been bitten, scratched and pooped on — I think we all have.” She also runs into people who don’t like to be around animals, often because of deep-seated fears or phobias. “Typically, people fear the animals you’d expect them to fear — the snakes, the tarantula, and the hissing cockroaches,” says Katie. “Our message to people is that the more they learn about the animals and the more they interact with them, the easier it will be for them to get over their fear.”
Who picks names for the animals? “It’s really an organic process,” Katie explains. “Sometimes the Animal Embassy manager chooses the name, sometimes the name is chosen by a volunteer — that happened with Candy, the name someone chose for our corn snake. Samson, the baby elephant, was named by the public.” Most of the animals, however, are already named before they arrive, since they are generally either bought, traded, or on loan from another zoo. Some are even donated by zoo visitors — parrots, for example, often come from people who don’t know what they’re getting into when they get a parrot as a pet. “That happens a lot,” says Katie, “but we’ve already got two parrots — we really can’t take any more.” Occasionally, animals are born in the zoo, like the African penguins, which have been breeding very successfully.
Katie always enjoys her job, but her favorite part is watching the bond between humans and wild creatures. “I just love being able to help people make a connection with an individual animal and hopefully set them on a path of caring about wildlife,” she says. “I love that moment when you see someone coming face to face with a toucan, and you see the wonder in their eyes.”