You’ll always see some of our superstars when you visit the Nature Center – the gray wolves, the river otters, the rat snakes. But there are some other stars you might never see working every day behind the scenes. Who feeds the animals, keeps their homes clean, cares for their medical needs, and attends to every little detail in the day-to-day workings of the Nature Center? The animal care staff is a team of specialist you might never see, but they are the reason the Nature Center exists at all. Jessica Krippel worked as an animal keeper at the Nature Center for nearly five years. She has recently moved on to the next adventure, but she remains a crucial part of what the Nature Center is today.
You might have seen her – the spunky little keeper in the fastest golf cart headed out to the wolves. Jessica might look unassuming, but her personality is a powerful presence, one the Nature Center is going to miss. There is nothing timid about Jessica, who worked primarily with the black bears and large predators, overseeing training and enrichment programs.
“Any hands on work with the animals was my favorite part of the job, especially training them,” Jessica says. “Although I mainly worked with the predators, I enjoyed working with all the animals.”
It might sound strange that anyone was training the wild animals at the Nature Center, but the specialized work Jessica did was for very important reasons. Target training river otters and other animals too dangerous to handle allows veterinarians and keepers to examine an animal without sedation. “We don’t teach them tricks. They’re not circus animals. This training is for their safety and ours.”
The gray wolves Cody and Shalimar were Jessica’s favorite animals to interact with. They arrived as pups, and Jessica was their primary caretaker for many years. “Because wolves are such social animals, I was able to experience being a part of their pack,” says Jessica. This exceptional experience never clouded Jessica’s understanding of the animals she was working with, however. Her realistic approach to working with dangerous wild animals made it possible for her to have a respectful, rewarding relationship with Cody and Shalimar, as well as many of the other animals.
“One special experience,” Jessica remembers, “was when Angel [the red wolf] gave birth to Mayo. As a zookeeper, being a part of conserving an endangered species is a very important thing. It brings meaning to caring for wild animals in a captive environment.”
This intensive, personal work with each animal made the hardest part of Jessica’s job letting go. “The most challenging aspect of the job was having to see some of our older animals that I had known for years pass away.” At her going away party, Jessica admitted what made it hardest to move on: “I hate to leave the animals.”
Before coming to the Nature Center, Jessica received her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and spent some time volunteering with a raptor rehabilitation center. “The best way to pursue animal care as a career is to get a degree in a Biology-related field and volunteer as much as possible to gain practical experience with animals,” she advises all budding animal keepers. Her move from the Nature Center was to pursue a Masters in Biology at Western Carolina University. She is focusing on ornithology and behavioral ecology. Currently, she is attempting to study how individual variation in behavior effects reproductive populations of song sparrows. In the long term, Jessica might be headed to a Ph. D. or work as a biologist for a federal or state wildlife organization. Wherever she goes, one thing is certain – they’re lucky to have the dedicated passion of someone so fiercely in love with preserving, defending, and celebrating wildlife.