The summer internship is a common experience for college students, an opportunity to explore career options, to gain experience in and exposure to your field, and to network. For most of my friends, their internships included last-minute conservative clothing runs, copious amounts of Starbucks, and long hours spent in heavily air-conditioned cubicles. 

Appealing as this sounded, I sought something entirely different for my very first college internship: I interned in the animal department at the Queens Zoo.

I began my dream internship in late May. Outfitted in my best cargo pants, work boots, and a collared shirt so blindingly red it repels fellow humans, I arrived with all of  the signs of an outsider: callus-free palms, a non-outdoorsy scent and, worst of all, dual swipes of eyeliner. I bailed on makeup after about three days. Things began spectacularly when my father walked me to the gate of the zoo before my first day, unknowingly giving me a “good luck hug” in front of the security camera. This led to one of the security guards asking me in front of all of my new coworkers if it was “daddy” he had seen walking me to work.

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Thankfully, things could only go up from there. I can now offer insight into the life of the elusive zookeeper, which is simultaneously unglamorous and epic. My responsibilities entailed most of the grimy grunt work that comes with caring for animals. Interns in all career paths are generally subject to the crappier aspects of  the job, and in the world of animal care this is quite literally the case. However, I’ve found that there’s something wonderful about being involved in the day-to-day cleaning chores that keep animals happy and healthy. I also loved getting a behind the scenes look at the zoo, which for me was like going on an all access tour of Disney.

During my summer at the zoo, I did my best to befriend all of the animals at the zoo. I hope to maintain regular communication with my favorite goats, Natalie, Floyd, and Ingrid, and the alpacas, Tremina, Sophia, Dorothy, and Peanut. When not dodging attacks from Pippin, a particularly mean-spirited goat, I reveled in trips from the petting zoo to the “wild side” of the zoo. I basked in the glamorous side of the job by feeding peanuts to the baby bear and holding the puma’s tail during an examination. On a slow day, I strung corn on the cob on twine and got to watch the goats chew it free with all of their childlike wonder. I felt like Scarlett Johansson in We Bought a Zoo (minus the romance with Matt Damon).

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I helped to care for a lamb born during my internship, fawned over newly hatched ducklings, and fed frozen grapes to one of the zoo’s pudu. For those of you wondering, the pudu is the world’s smallest deer. Between their toothpick sized horns and short, skinny legs, they’re absurdly adorable.

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It was a sizable adjustment, but also a huge thrill to see everything that I had learned about in my classes in real life. I even gained some new muscle tone hauling around wheelbarrows, which was an unforeseen bonus. My improved physique aside, another highlight of the internship was working for WCS. The Queens Zoo is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, meaning that it works to protect wild animals and their homes amid increasing environmental change. It was an honor to contribute to such an awe-inspiring mission, even as a lowly intern.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I’ll apply my newly learned skills to my second year at Cornell, but if you come across a wandering bison or some sheep in need of herding, look no further; I’ll be there in a flash.

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