Summer program offers valuable experience at zoo


Kathleen Ortiz

Maya Ortiz, 10, talks with guests at the Houston Zoo about the ring-tailed lemurs on June 23. She spent five weeks at the zoo as part of the Zoo Crew program.

Reece Cavallo, Staff Writer

Sophomore Taylor Mattingly spent a month of her summer waking up to the ringing of her alarm at 5 a.m., only to have to drive all the way to downtown Houston. As exhausting as it seems, this was the reality for a handful of students who participated in the Houston Zoo’s Zoo Crew Program.

Sophomore Maya Ortiz also worked with Zoo Crew, a program in Houston with the aim to teach teenagers about zoology careers and animals. This summer was Ortiz’s first at the zoo, after spending the previous year as a first-year “explorer” virtually.

The zoo actually encourages us not to [talk about the animal species as a whole]. We really want [patrons] to be attached to the animal itself.

— Taylor Mattingly, sophomore

Every Zoo Crew member is required to become an explorer their first year, where they learn the basic skills and knowledge that the Zoo Crew program requires. Because Ortiz got her explorer year done last year, she was able to specialize this summer as a “naturalist.”

A naturalist’s main responsibility is to become knowledgeable of the animals that the zoo houses. They are then stationed at the different exhibits to supply the patrons with information about the animals. Instead of memorizing trivia about the entire species, Zoo Crew members take their discussions to a more personal level, focusing on the actual individual Houston Zoo animals

“The zoo actually encourages us not to [talk about the animal species as a whole],” said Mattingly, who was an explorer and a naturalist this summer. “We really want [patrons] to be attached to the animal itself.” 

The Zoo Crew Program is totally voluntary; the only tangible payment these teenagers receive is a 40% discount on food and drink. But the participants tell of a different kind of compensation.

“There are so many cool people that are a part of the Zoo Crew program,” said Mattingly, whose brother Peyton, a junior, also participated. “Learning all this information about the animals and what the zoo does for conservation is really cool.” 

Ortiz also took more from the experience than 25 cent soft drinks. Before going through the program she had planned on becoming a veterinarian, but working with the Zoo Crew prompted her to change her interest toward animal research and conservation. In fact, Ortiz has started a Conservation Club at Kingwood Park this year.

Although a month of eight-hour daily shifts in Houston may sound daunting, both Mattingly and Ortiz recommend the experience. 

“It’s the first time I found something I was passionate about,” said Ortiz. “I was actually excited to get out of bed.” 

To students who may be interested in the Zoo Crew program, Ortiz recommends to start getting familiar with conservation and animals before the summer begins and to apply as early as you can. 

“Just to get that background knowledge in animals,” Ortiz said, “is a really big help.”