This Black History Month, we sat down with Sunni, a zookeeper at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park who helps make the park the incredibly special place it is. We asked her about her experiences in zookeeping and what working with animals and wildlife means to her.
Q: What is your favorite part of the job?
A: I love working with and creating a relationship with the animals. I also enjoy creating fun and special moments with children on the Keeper Adventure Tours I lead. It’s wonderful watching them discover something new and cool and seeing their reaction to the animals.
Q: What is your favorite fun fact about an animal at Northwest Trek?
A: That elk are a very vocal species! They make so many different noises and have their own elk language. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much they communicate with one another.
Q: What is your favorite animal at Northwest Trek?
A: The caribou! I get to work with them a lot in the Free-Roaming Area and it’s so cool to be able to say that I work with a species of reindeer.
Q: What inspired you to become a keeper?
A: I’ve always felt connected to animals and conservation. I’d never even thought about being a keeper until late in college, but once I got into the world of zookeeping, I knew it was meant to be. I think it’s important to be a voice for the voiceless and, in this case, that’s the animals. Caring for them and helping them is something I’ll always be passionate about.
Q: What was your journey to becoming a keeper?
A: I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and attended Appalachian State University in North Carolina. As a student, I worked in the career development center. One day, my mentor showed me a flier for a job opening at a big cat sanctuary in Arkansas. It was perfect!
I applied and after college, I interned at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The refuge is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and working there taught me so much about the illegal pet trade and how to care for animals after they are confiscated by those trades.
From there, I interned at Virginia Zoo (a facility accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums) in the herpetology department (reptiles and amphibians). Then, COVID hit and, like many people, I was out of a job. I saw an internship opportunity at Northwest Trek and moved across the country in early 2021 with my partner for it! In May 2021, I was hired as a seasonal keeper.
Being here has been an amazing opportunity. I work primarily in the Free-Roaming Area with animals like elk, caribou, bison and mountain goats. I also lead the Keeper Adventure Tours, driving the Jeep off-road in the Free-Roaming Area and teaching guests about all of the wonderful animals.
Q: What would you say to people of color who would like to work in the zoological field?
A: At most of the zoos I’ve been to, I’ve been the only person of color. Zoos have been incredibly welcoming to me as a Black woman, but Black people are a minority in the zoo community and I want to be a role model for the next generation. I want little brown girls to see me and think “oh, I can do that too!” I want to give them the courage to know they have a place in zoos.
I didn’t have that representation to look up to. I was fortunate to have my mother, mentors and peers who did look like me to support me in my journey, but there wasn’t that representation in the field. Visibility is really important.
Q: What are your next steps or goals in this career path?
A: I would love to work my way up to a full-time keeper and do conservation research. Eventually, I’d like to be the curator or director of a zoo. I want younger generations to see me continue to rise in this career and know that they can also succeed.
Q: Is there one person in Black history who has inspired you the most?
A: Harriet Tubman. She risked everything for others. I think that kind of sacrifice is admirable.
If you’d like to meet Sunni, catch her on a Keeper Adventure Tour on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays.