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Developing Identity in Zoos

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This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Hispanic Heritage Month, WCS and Nature are bringing you five stories in the fields of nature and conservation.


As a conservation educator at the Queens Zoo, Priscilla sparked a connection to wildlife for thousands of children during educational programs for families and schools. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

I’ve always been passionate about wildlife. Conservation is a huge part of my identity and has been the driving force behind my academic and professional trajectory. As a proud Bronx native, I cultivated my appreciation of the natural world by immersing myself in local New York City parks and iconic institutions.

Chief among those institutions is the Bronx Zoo and the four other New York City zoological parks operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society: the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo and New York Aquarium. As the Manager of Volunteers and Visitor Engagement at the Bronx Zoo, I support an array of live interpretation, nature play, and education programs while also managing a large team of volunteers.

The Bronx Zoo has been part of my conservation education from an early age. I have vivid memories of school field trips as a kid, of visits with my family and friends, and eventually as an intern. As a kindergartener, I had a chance once to interact with one of the zoo’s hedgehogs. I remember being in awe touching its quills, which felt like a comb! I saw firsthand how zoo experiences like these can leave lasting, meaningful impressions.

Priscilla with Olivia Ramos, Youth Development Coordinator at the Bronx Zoo, gleefully pose with new Quest interpretive sign. The sign includes original artwork created by our youth volunteers from the Virtual Discovery Guide program. Photo credit: Bricken Sparacino/WCS

At 15, I had my first internship at the Bronx Zoo—with the Afterschool Adventures in Wildlife program. Then the summer before beginning my undergraduate studies at the SUNY College of Environmental Science, I worked with the special animal exhibitions department at the Children’s Zoo and Butterfly Garden. As a rising junior, I was formally introduced to the conservation education profession as a Bronx Zoo Summer Teaching Fellow.

For the fellowship, I worked alongside an amazing, creative team of educators with whom I realized I could leverage my dreamy imagination to develop engaging conservation programming. These experiences ultimately led to my first full-time role as an educator at the Queens Zoo shortly after graduation. There, my identity as a creative conservationist was forged.

I went on to complete my graduate studies at Bank Street College of Education in Upper Manhattan, obtaining a Master of Science in Leadership in Museum Education. Coupled with my Bachelor of Science in Conservation Biology degree, my educational background provided a unique cross-disciplinary lens for wildlife conservation.

Opening weekend of Ocean Wonders: Sharks! at the New York Aquarium. Photo credit: ©Candy Hernandez

Prior to my current role with WCS, I explored related work at the New York Botanical Garden, Wave Hill, and the American Museum of Natural History. As a New Yorker, I had the good fortune to take full advantage of the city’s museums, gardens, and other cultural riches.

Working for the WCS Education Department these past two years has been a remarkable learning and growth experience. The challenge of starting a new role right before a pandemic turned into an opportunity for innovation and new approaches. From pivoting to online engagement to having an increased involvement with onsite live interpretation, every day has brought new perspectives on how to do our work.

This summer, we brought to life beloved books by legendary children’s author Eric Carle (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) with live performances, music, games, and other activities. I had the remarkably unique opportunity to help cast and support the Wildlife Theatre for our Eric Carle World of Wildlife program. My highlight was collaborating with new teams and colleagues.

Bronx Zoo Wildlife Theatre crew with puppets from the Butterfly Boogie performance. Photo credit: ©WCS/Bronx Zoo

Together, we brought a Spanish language song, “Mirandome (Looking at Me),” for the first time to the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Theatre Stage. We included a Spanish & English “Spanglish” sing-along and the shows had a superb reception. I was eager (and humbled) to be able to extend the feeling of belonging and inclusivity to our Spanish language visitors.

Growing up in the Bronx, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of my parent’s homeland, the Dominican Republic. I’m entering this next phase of my career feeling motivated to explore more programs that are responsive to the diverse communities we serve and that resonate with my Hispanic Heritage.

During these past summer months, I smiled at visitors in solidarity, knowing they were in store for a theatrical Spanglish language treat, performed by a cast representing the diversity of NYC and singing in what many Bronx Zoo visitors consider their home language.

This week, I am attending the Association of Zoos & Aquarium Conference as the recipient of the 2021 Disney Diversity Advancement Virtual Scholarship. This grant is sponsored by Disney to provide professional development support for members of an underrepresented group within the zoo and aquarium field. I’m excited to attend the conference for the first time in my career.

Priscilla facilitating a camp experience as a Bronx Zoo Teaching Fellow with program participants during her college years. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Participating is elevating my understanding of the zoo and conservation profession and helping me move forward more confidently as I amplify my presence and impact in this field.

I’m extremely grateful for the mentors I’ve met since returning to WCS and the supportive nature of the organization and our Education Department. I’ve had the good fortune to develop my conservation, creative, and Dominican identities through my work in zoos. What identities have you developed or might you discover at your own local zoo? Don’t wait to find out!

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