Alum gets dream job at Grant’s Farm

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.

Katie Vecchi, who earned her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012 through WIU's Department of Biological Sciences, is an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant's Farm in St. Louis (MO).

Katie Vecchi, who earned her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012 through WIU’s Department of Biological Sciences, is an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis (MO). She is posed here with Bud.

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 [2012], 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.

Advertisements

WIU alumnus, zoo director in Ohio, involved in search for exotic animals

With headlines like “Exotic animals escape from Ohio farm” and “Schools closed as exotic animals prowl,” the situation that unfolded on Oct. 18 and 19 sounded like something straight from a movie rather than from actual news sources.

But the very real situation is that dozens of exotic animals, including lions, tigers and cheetahs, escaped from a Zanesville, Ohio preserve following the death of its owner. According to CNN.com, a number of animals thought to be dangerous were still on the loose as of 8:35 a.m. (EST) today (Oct. 19).

Tom Stalf, a WIU graduate, is among the officials trying to get the situation under control. Stalf, who until recently served as director of the Niabi Zoo in the Quad Cities, is now the senior vice president of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo. The 1992 WIU alum was interviewed on TODAY this morning about the danger that these animals present on the loose.

Screen shot of Tom Stalf on Today show

Stalf earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor geology from WIU. He left the QC area for Ohio only recently, according to KWQC.com, to take the position in Ohio. Watch him being interviewed on the TODAY show here. (Stalf’s interview begins at approximately the 2:35 mark).

For this graduate, plastics really did matter.

In that oft-quoted moment in film history, Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate”—facing his uncertain future—gets sage advice about what to do with his life. And that advice became a punchline for a generation.

YouTube clip

But for Ron Sherga, a 1976 WIU biology and geology graduate, plastics have been anything but a joke. Recycling plastics, in fact, has led him to an environmentally conscious career.Ron Sherga '76

Sherga is the owner of Sher-Results LLC, (Arlington, TX), which assists companies and organizations with recycling and sustainability issues, and has been a leader in plastics recycling for 30 years.

During his time at WIU, Sherga was a Member of Theta Chi, and the campus groups including Interhall Council and University Union Board. He will return to his alma mater on April 7 to deliver the keynote speech at Western’s Seventh Annual Environmental Summit.

And perhaps he can be said to have erased his own carboon footprint: the facilities he has managed or owned have been responsible for reusing two billion pounds of scrap plastics.

Will you be at this year’s summit?

Looking for what you might be able to do with a biology major?

Or are you a 70s-era alum who remembers Ron?

We want to hear from you. Leave your comments below.