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How Hispanic Heritage Influenced a Keeper to Help Her Community and Nature


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.

Omara Aviles holding a newborn Père David’s deer fawn during a physical exam to check its health a day after birth. Photo credit: Colleen McCann/WCS.

For most people, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to celebrate Hispanic/Latinx achievements and to embrace the culture and customs that were passed down for generations. But as a first-generation-born American, my parents taught me to be proud and celebrate my culture every day.

My mother, aunts, and grandmothers have engrained in me deep respect, love and devotion for nature. That is the legacy that has had the most influence in my life. Wildlife is woven into the fabric of Hispanic culture. The sound of a coqui (a group of frogs endemic to Puerto Rico) floods every Puerto Rican with the nostalgia of the Isla del Encanto (“The Island”), just as the golden eagle with the snake instills pride in every Mexican.

Like most people in the zoo and aquarium field, I developed an interest in wildlife and the environment at a young age. As a child, I recall watching my stoic grandmother lose her tough façade when lovingly tending to her animals. From my mother, I’ve learned about herbs and roots that help provide natural remedies to different ailments.

Giving Sukari grain on the Giraffe Feeding Platform at the Bronx Zoo. Photo credit: Joseph Nappi/WCS

An aunt taught me the value of the three sisters’ (beans, squash and maize) symbiotic relationship when planting: the corn stalks become a sort of trellis for the beans to grow upward, while the beans provide nitrogen in the soil, and the squash covers the ground to prevent weeds from growing.

But most importantly, these beloved family elders taught me to respect and take care of nature. If I took something from the earth, I was supposed to give something in return or make sure I left it in good enough condition to continue growing and not disturb the natural ecosystem.

Hand-raised blackbuck calf, Gnocchi, with Omara Aviles in Wild Asia. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

I would like to think that as a wild animal keeper I am a small piece of a greater picture conserving wildlife. All keepers make every effort to provide an ideal life for our animals. Every task and decision made is always with their best interest in mind. We strive to create enrichment activities that engage our animals in natural behaviors while in their habitats. We do so in hopes that when guests see them, they have a better appreciation of why this animal is essential to the ecosystem and why they need to be protected in the wild.

As a keeper, I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm and love for an animal’s individuality and personality with guests. But what fills me with a special kind of joy is when I can make those connections with guests who only speak Spanish. It’s a small and intimate connection made for a short moment, but it has a greater lasting impact on their view of zoos and the conservation programs WCS engages in to save wildlife.

Unique among New York City’s five boroughs, the Bronx has a majority Hispanic population. That provides an incredible opportunity—and responsibility—for the Bronx Zoo to educate and ignite a passion for wildlife among so many people of Hispanic heritage. The zoo community has taken steps to include a more diverse generation of wild animal keepers, but more can and should be done. I believe it is essential to learn more about other cultures and customs and to respect the differences we have.

Feeding nilgai antelope and sambar deer in the Bronx Zoo’s Uplands exhibit. Photo credit: Joseph Borsellino/WCS

The natural world has always had a strong influence in Hispanic/Latinx culture. Growing up under the influence of my grandmothers, aunts, and mother, I don’t remember a time I wasn’t sure I was going to work with animals. Those important women in my life, and their respect and devotion for nature, help to explain why I know wildlife will always be an integral part of who I am.


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