By Thomas Kyle-Milward
Marketing & Communication
Not everyone gets a chance to live out the careers they dreamt about as children, but Suzanne Akerman ’03 found a way to make hers a reality at Point Defiance Zoo.
“I had wanted to be a zookeeper as a kid but it was like being an astronaut to me,” Akerman says. “Like, I don’t know how you do that, I don’t know anyone who does that, and so it sort of fell to the wayside.”
As a high school student, Akerman set about pursuing a career in another field she was passionate about: teaching. She enrolled here at Pacific Lutheran University and earned a bachelor’s in English literature and a master’s in education. That was when she discovered a way to combine her passions.
“While I was working on my master’s here I started volunteering at the zoo, and that opened up a whole new world,” Akerman says. “I realized that they have education (opportunities) and I could combine these two interests of mine and do them both at the same time — and wouldn’t that be an amazing career?”
After a brief stint teaching for the Puyallup School District, Akerman took the plunge and began working as a temp employee for Point Defiance Zoo, supplementing her income by substitute teaching in the offseason. Her hard work was eventually rewarded three years ago with a full-time job at the zoo’s Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater.
“In the summers we do a big production that’s like a play where the animals are actors and we’ve got costumes and sound effects,” she says. “During the rest of the year, we do a more informal close encounter where we bring out a lineup of animals and just chat with visitors about them. Every now and then I do what we call an off-site appearance, and we take some animals traveling to schools for presentations or educational events.”
A wide assortment of animals make up the outdoor theater’s cast of characters, ranging from tarantulas and birds of prey to skunks and aardvarks. Clouded leopards, one of the largest animals in the department, are always a crowd pleaser. But one stands out to Akerman.
“My favorite animal is Jumbo Jet the radiated tortoise,” she says. “They’re endangered, from Madagascar. I never pegged myself as a reptile person, but Jumbo Jet has a lot of charisma and he just has a way of engaging visitors that I find really endearing.”
The interaction with zoo goers are most meaningful for Akerman.
“The best part about my job is being able to really make a difference in people’s connections with wildlife, which then in turn will make a difference for conservation and the environment and the impact can end up being really huge,” Akerman says. “I also really like the challenge and the variety, there’s always something new, there’s always something different.”