From the time Katie Vecchi was a small child, she knew she wanted to work with animals. Her childhood wish has come to fruition, thanks, in part, to her studies at WIU.
Since last year, Katie has worked as an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant’s Farm (based in St. Louis, MO), a position she calls her “dream” job and one she landed, in part, because of the post-graduate work—resulting in her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012—she did at Western.
In an email message she sent to Jeanette Thomas, a professor in WIU’s Department of Biological Sciences and the coordinator of the department’s PBC program in zoo and aquarium studies , Katie told her former teacher about how her graduate studies at WIU helped her get her Grant’s Farm gig.
“My boss informed me whenever I was hired that my graduate certificate and especially some of the classes that I took at Western made me one of the top candidates for the position right off the bat. So I truly appreciate all of your guidance and help. I think that you and WIU have really helped me achieve all of my goals,” she wrote to Dr. Thomas.
Since starting at Grant’s Farm last year as a temporary employee, Katie has been hired as a full-time, permanent employee. Recently, she shared with me a bit more about her background, how she learned about the position at Grant’s Farm, and what she does daily these days in her “dream” job.
Q. What interested you in studying animal biology? When did you receive your undergraduate degree?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. From the time I was a small child I knew I wanted to work with animals, so I decided I wanted to become an animal trainer. I tried to learn as much as I could about the animals that interested me. Through this passion, I was able to get my first few jobs working with animals in Pittsburgh while I was still in high school. I volunteered at the National Aviary and volunteered, interned, and worked at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I then moved to Florida, where I attended Saint Leo University (just north of Tampa Bay). I received a dual bachelor’s of science degree in biology and environmental science, with a minor in psychology, in 2010. During my time in college, I also volunteered at Lowry Park Zoo and a small carnivore sanctuary by my university.
Q. What interested you about WIU’s PBC program in zoo and aquarium studies?
Though most jobs in my field only require an undergraduate degree, going to graduate school was one of my own goals. I wanted to enroll in a program that would help me grow and develop in my profession. I thought WIU’s program was perfect. I believe the classes I took to obtain my certificate will help me throughout my career. For example, the animal training class I took not only has helped me with training at my job at Grant’s Farm, but it also has helped me to obtain the job itself. Also, I like that we were required to take business classes. I know that as I move up in my career, I will have to take on additional responsibilities. These classes, I think, have helped me prepare for this.
Q. How did your job at Grant’s Farm come about?
Grant’s Farm posted a position for an elephant intern on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ website. The post was for a paid, full-time position, which would last from April through November of 2012. I applied for the position in February , which was followed my two additional interview processes. I was offered the job in March. Throughout my time as the intern in the department, I was able to grow and develop as an elephant trainer. Also, my superiors were impressed with my knowledge and abilities. Toward the end of my internship, I was informed that some changes were being made in my department and a new position would be available. I was then offered the job to stay on as permanent, full-time staff member.
Q. What kinds of tasks make up your day?
The large majority of my day at Grant’s Farm is cleaning and husbandry care for our elephants. We have both barns and outside exhibits to clean each day. We also prepare diets, clean staff and preparation areas, move large amounts of hay and food, and keep very detailed records of our animals. And we perform three shows each day that we are open, as well. I can act as either the speaker of the show or the elephant handler. Additionally, we do training, medical procedures, and enrichment.
Q. How do you think your studies at WIU helped you get the full-time position at Grant’s Farm?
I believe the classes at WIU gave me a huge advantage. The class I believe helped me the most is the animal training class. That course enabled me to come to the position with an extensive knowledge or training and previous training experience. It also allowed me to prove my abilities as a trainer while training new behaviors to our elephants. Additionally, classes such as mammalogy gave me a greater understanding of not only elephants but other animals at Grant’s Farm, which makes me a better asset for the education of our visitors. Finally, the classes that focused on the business and backgrounds of zoos allowed me to have a better understanding of the way these facilities run. I believe that this is not only helpful now in my career, but will also be later on.
Q. Future plans?
I am very happy with my position at Grant’s Farm. My dream job was to work with African elephants, and I have been very lucky in the sense that shortly after completing the WIU program, I was able to obtain my dream job. I would like to continue to grow as an elephant trainer and handler into the future, and I am looking forward to where that will take me. I also participated in the Shedd Aquarium internship while I was completing my WIU certificate. I think being a part of the program helped me to obtain this position, as well.