Michelle Demko, Animal Caregiver

“Unity College gave us the skills and commitment to be environmental stewards; you have to find within yourself the pride, passion, dedication, and determination to fulfill that commitment.”

Michelle Demko at Chimp Haven

Michelle Demko
BS, Wildlife Conservation; Class of 2013
Animal Caregiver I
Chimp Haven
Keithville, La.

What is your title and company, and what are your main responsibilities, currently?

Currently, I am employed full-time as an Animal Caregiver I at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. Chimp Haven is a federally approved sanctuary for retired chimpanzees. I have been employed by Chimp Haven since my graduation from Unity College. I graduated with a B.S. degree in Wildlife Conservation with a minor in Zoology. I was active in the Wildlife Club, was a member of the Friends of Acadia, and still am an active member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. I was also a member of the Unity women’s volleyball team and currently serve as an assistant coach at Airline High School in Bossier City, Louisiana.

At Chimp Haven, I am a member of an animal caregiver team that is responsible for the welfare and animal husbandry of more than 200 chimpanzees. These chimpanzees came from various biomedical research laboratories around the country, and from the entertainment industry. They range in age from 3 years to 56 years and each has their own amazing personality.

Arriving at Chimp Haven means a new beginning for these chimpanzees.  They are offered an environment that stimulates behaviors similar to those found in the wild. They are offered natural forested habitats; some of these chimpanzees have never felt a blade of grass before.

Which bring me to my favorite part of my job, just watching the chimpanzee’s reactions to various stimuli, whether it be a new presentation of food, being transferred to a new enclosure, their reaction to newly introduced chimps, or even a change in the weather.  So you could say animal behavior and training are what I enjoy most about my job as an Animal Caregiver I working with chimpanzees.
As an Animal Caregiver I, my main responsibility is to follow stringent staff security protocols of Chimp Haven in accordance with all state and federal regulations.  My duties associated directly with the chimpanzees are to perform daily animal husbandry, enclosure maintenance, and to meet all their dietary needs. At times, I also assist veterinarians with routine medical procedures. Observing, reporting, and recording chimpanzee behavior and appearance is essential, as well. Additionally, I truly enjoy public awareness Discover Days at Chimp Haven.  Chimp Haven is only open to the public a very limited amount of days throughout the year, usually only six Saturdays, and sometimes for educational school field trips.  I am committed to the animals and my profession.  I enjoy giving educational demonstrations, educating the public about the plight of the chimpanzee, and making them aware of the importance of wildlife conservation.

What was your path to getting the job you have now?

Becoming a wildlife conservationist — whether in a sanctuary, zoo, or in a natural environment — has been my dream and ambition for a very long time. Actually, as a child, I always loved the animals, no matter where we were visiting. I was the one in the pictures with the snake around my neck or the lizard on my arm, or covered in birds at a feeding house, or feeding giraffes. I went to the Philadelphia Zoo every summer and sometimes two or three times a year. When I became age appropriate, my fate was sealed: I qualified to attend professional animal training camps at Busch Gardens. They focused on animal husbandry and education. I attended for three summers and I was hooked: I wanted to work with wildlife. It wasn’t until I went to Unity College, that I realized through my education and amazing internships that my true aspiration was to become an environmental steward. I was going to dedicated myself to animal care, conservation, education, and research. I had found my passion.

What made you want to come to Unity? Were those expectations realized by the time you graduated?

Choosing Unity College took just one minute one day at a local high school college fair.  I visited the Unity booth by myself, talked to the representative, and knew at that moment I would be attending Unity College in Maine. My parents tried to convince me otherwise for several reasons.  First, they knew nothing about the school and second, it was in Maine. A third objection was the curriculum was so limited.  What if I didn’t like what I chose, what could I do? That thought never entered my mind, it was already decided. We visited various other schools with animal-related degrees but I knew differently, it was Unity or bust.  Finally, my dad and sister visited Unity with me and still had some serious doubts … so small, so far away, and there was nothing around the school. They knew I was serious and finally my family gave me all of their support.  I was going to Unity College.

My first year at Unity, I started doubting my confidence. Being home sick was one of the biggest obstacles, not knowing anyone and not being able to go home on the weekends. As the first semester concluded, I was feeling a bit more comfortable in my surroundings. I made several new friends, learned how to get around, joined the volleyball team, and found many of my professors to be very welcoming and interested in our progress. Unity was going to be my new home for the next four years.

By my senior year, I was on track to graduate a semester early, in December 2013. My years at Unity went by so fast. I made some good friends at Unity, had a lot of fun especially in my class labs doing experiments, studying live wildlife, and doing dissections, and I enjoyed traveling with the volleyball team.

One of my more memorable experiences was doing projects for the wildlife club. We had to clean the duck boxes on Sandy Stream. Needless to say, overturning the canoe in the cold, murky water was a serious event but we laughed about our situation. Other memorable classes were Fisheries Science and Techniques with David Potter and Animal Behavior with Cheryl Frederick.
Unity fulfilled many of my educational expectations. However, my best and most memorable experiences came from my summer internships. I secured internships at three zoos: The Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum in Sioux Falls, S.D.; The Utica Zoo in Utica, N.Y.; and the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Neb. These experiences helped me to fulfill many of the qualifications necessary to work with animals; they gave me confidence in my abilities, I grew both personally and professionally, and they made me even more committed to my career choice. Internships are one of the key aspects to achieving your career goal.

Although I already had some memorable experiences, I had one more goal in mind: I wanted to spend some time in Africa. After graduating in December, I left for South Africa the day after Christmas, ready to begin my adventure. For four weeks, I traveled though and l camped out on the African savannah, up close and personal with the wildlife. During my EcoLife Expedition, I traveled through Kruger National Park, where I worked closely with park rangers, veterinarians, ecologists, and conservationists. I learned how to dart wildlife from a helicopter, and to restrain, handle, and properly test the wildlife. I visited the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the Mjejane Game Reserve, and a lion and elephant sanctuary. These experiences took me one step closer to fulfilling a lifetime dream. I loved Africa and the experience was unbelievable and unforgettable.

Once I was back to the real world, all my time and effort was once again dedicated to job searching … application after application and plenty of interviews, but no job offers. Finally, I accepted a paid internship with the Denver Zoo. I needed put my education and experience to good use. A few days after I committed to the Denver Zoo, I got a phone call and job offer from Chimp Haven; a fulltime position with benefits and vacation. As tough as it was to tell Denver I had to decline the internship, I was excited I got a permanent position and it was actually the job I was initially hoping for. I decided I was going to walk with my class in the May graduation, then move to Louisiana and start my career at Chimp Haven.

But my decision making wasn’t over. At graduation, I was given the privilege to spend some time with Celine Cousteau. During our conversation, which was very exciting, we discussed her artistic approach to meeting the challenges of the planet, our sentiments about conservation, and my new career at Chimp Haven. Ms. Cousteau was interested in my career choices and offered to advance my name to the Jane Goodall Foundation. I was offered a three-month unpaid internship in London, England with the Jane Goodall Foundation. I had a very important decision to make; stay committed to the position I already accepted with Chimp Haven or give it all up to spend three months with one of the most prestigious organizations in the world. After some serious deliberation, I decided to fulfill my commitment to Chimp Haven and move to Louisiana.

How would you describe your transition from college to the working world, and what advice would you give fellow or future Unity alums?

It is one step at a time when making the big leap from college into the real world.  It can be very rewarding yet very challenging. I am a firm believer that by participating in all career-related activities, you become a stronger, well prepared, and professionally qualified candidate for the working world. I was already adapted to the animal care and conservation working environment because of my three internships and Africa.

However, the move to Louisiana wasn’t too dramatic for me other than being a big culture shock. I had to make many adjustments.  My advice would be to set your goals whether it’s a particular career, place to live, something you want to do, or somewhere you want to travel. Be passionate, confident, and dedicated to that goal, and do everything in your power to help you achieve that goal and you will be rewarded with success. Also, be willing and accepting to change.

My aspiration to work with animals has led me on an amazing journey. I am dedicated and passionate about animal care, conservation, and education.  Conservation is not just protecting and caring for our natural and cultural resources, it is an emotion. You need to feel deep in your heart the difference you can make through conservation.

Unity College gave us the skills and commitment to be environmental stewards; you have to find within yourself the pride, passion, dedication, and determination to fulfill that commitment.

Friday, January 29, 2016