Real Talk: Melissa McCartney

Ever wondered how your required college composition courses will benefit you once you’re in the “real world”? Ever wondered how important reading and writing skills are to engineers, artists, marketing experts, nurses, and entrepreneurs? I’ve started this series, Real Talk, to give professionals in a variety of industries a chance to share why reading and writing are so critical to what they do.

Today we’re profiling zookeeper Melissa McCartney, who has been profiled by National Geographic for her work on the Sacramento Zoo’s state-of-the-art enclosure for giraffes. Giraffes made the news recently when research on their DNA was published. Once considered a less at-risk animal, giraffes — thanks to research being done with the help of conservation groups and zoos around the world — are now understood to be a group comprised of multiple species, much more genetically distinct than previously realized. And although giraffe numbers in aggregate made it seem as if they were at low risk of extinction, the populations of distinct species (possibly as genetically distinct as a polar bear is from a black bear, according to the research!) is dangerously low.

The animals Melissa works with may not be able to read and write, but being a zookeeper goes far beyond the basic feeding and care of animals. The complex work of care, conservation, and visitor education requires excellent communication skills, and more reading, writing, and research than you can shake an acacia branch at!

melissa
“I am not only responsible for the welfare of the animals under my care — both in the literal and ethical sense — but I teach students and new staff, and educate the public. I need to know that the information I base my work on is current, accurate, and that I understand how to apply it to how we operate.”

Describe your job.

I am a zookeeper; it encompasses the day-to-day work of caring for the animals in the facility’s collection, as well as management of the facility and staff, participation in medical husbandry and animal training, and outside work with conservation and research projects.

What kind of reading and writing do you do on an everyday basis?

Zoos are very oriented towards record keeping. Most staff are responsible for daily logs, observation reports, medical notes, composing and updating protocols and care sheets. That goes hand-in-hand with the usual communication based writing that you find in any business that relies on email, summary reports, and documentation of daily operations.

Conservation work, field work, and research are integral to modern zoo’s mission of education and protection of natural resources. Most keepers, like myself, also work on both in-situ and ex-situ projects with the support of their managing facility. I sit on a committee that manages the zoo’s conservation budget and allocates the funds. It is a lot of reading grant proposals and supporting documents, compiling notes as I run each proposal though a rubric to evaluate the proposal’s merit, and writing summary reports.

What kinds of reading and writing skills are key to your field?

Concise, detailed, and accurate reporting. Every day I will file a log that notes everything related to each animal’s medical, dietary, training, behavioral observation, and maintenance needs. In each of those areas I’ll often have to record in a separate place a more detailed record of the day’s events. And all my records are stored for inspection with review by a multitude of agencies.

Why are these skills important to being successful in your work?

It’s integral to the job that I keep up with current research, changing laws, and stricter husbandry expectations. I do a lot of reading through new protocols, new housing guidelines, updated census and natural history data, and emerging research into diet and nutrition. I am not only responsible for the welfare of the animals under my care – both in the literal and ethical sense – but I teach students and new staff, and educate the public. I need to know that the information I base my work on is current, accurate, and that I understand how to apply it to how we operate.

What advice do you have for students, particularly college students in first- and second-year writing courses?

Every job requires good written communication skills – even shoveling elephant dung at the zoo. If you manage to convince yourself you will not need to be able to write well for your chosen job or field, just remember: you have to get a job first. In such a highly competitive job market just getting past the first step of sending a well-written and coherent cover letter and resume can be all the difference.

One of the smartest things I ever did in school was find a writing course that focused on resume and cover letters. You might land an interview over more qualified candidates just because your resume was well prepared. In zoos, a single job opening may have several hundred applicants. Weeding out the incoherent resumes filled with typos is a simple way to cut the applicant pool down to a manageable number regardless of the quality of the applicant themselves.

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