Do you remember the first time you met Snow Leopard Trust founder Helen Freeman?
It was the spring of 1986 at Washington State University, and I was set to graduate the next year with a degree in Zoology. I was going to go into veterinary medicine but decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my Zoology degree.
Helen came to the university and was a guest speaker in my conservation class. She spoke of snow leopard conservation and research. She mentioned how so little was known about these big cats in the wild and was so passionate in her desire to learn more about and help these endangered animals. She spoke of being the curator of education at Woodland Park Zoo and mentioned how getting to know these animals made her want to be a part of their conservation. She said the zoo was playing a role in snow leopard conservation and educating visitors about their plight.
I found her words so inspiring that I spoke to her after the class and told her I would like to help in some way. She suggested that I volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo and help her with some research. I still needed to do an internship for my degree, so in the summer of 1987, I started my six-month internship at Woodland Park Zoo’s feline house. There, I learned about several species of felids. I also did behavioral research for Helen on a breeding pair of snow leopards. I have always loved big cats, but after this experience, snow leopards quickly became my favorite.
One of your colleagues said you were so inspired that you applied for a job at Woodland Park Zoo after graduation. Do you remember what Helen said?
Yes, I remember how much she loved snow leopards and was so passionate about their conservation. What really struck me the most was how her job at the zoo helped her on this path. Before listening to Helen, I had no desire to work at a zoo. I didn’t think very highly of zoos. After talking with Helen, I realized that zoos had changed both in animal care and the important role that they play in education and conservation. I wanted to be a part of that.
How do you think your work as a keeper in Seattle tied into snow leopard conservation in the wild?
Being a Zookeeper is not only to care for animals but also to educate visitors and others about them. Not only have I researched snow leopards for Helen and others, but I have also given talks both formally and informally on snow leopards to visitors and classes. My hope is that I have been able to inspire someone to help or get involved in snow leopard conservation.
What was your favorite thing about being a Zookeeper?
Of course, my favorite thing about being a Zookeeper is working with the animals and having a relationship with them, getting to know all about them. I also love watching a child learn about the animals as I talk to them. Their questions, their wide-eyed enthusiasm. It brings a smile to my face and gives me hope for the future.
What is the biggest challenge you faced as a Zookeeper?
For me, the biggest challenge is when you have a sick animal or when an animal passes away. You still have to go on with your day. There are always more animals that need you and visitors who want to talk to you. You have to compartmentalize what you are dealing with and feeling so you can get through the day.
What are some particularly interesting individual traits you’ve discovered about snow leopards?
It is interesting to me the variety of habitats where snow leopards live. They range from snowy mountains to dry lower areas. They live from 3900 to 19700 feet. They are beautifully equipped for their habitat. With a big tail that helps with balance in steep rocky areas to thick fur to help in snow. Interestingly, they can’t roar but do a low grunting, growl kind of sound. But mostly, having taken care of them, I have found that they have a wonderful temperament. Being greeted with a face rub and a chuff is pretty wonderful.
What is most surprising to you about snow leopard conservation work?
How far it has come. From on-the-ground research to setting up cameras to capture and document night activities to getting communities involved. When I was first learning about snow leopards, so little was known about them in the wild. They are so elusive that even their numbers were a question. At that time, there were believed to be about 1000 to 2000 and were classified as endangered.
With all the extra technology and how much the Snow Leopard Trust as grown, we know much more now. Currently, they are listed as vulnerable, and their numbers are believed to be under 10,000. Snow leopard numbers still decline every year from poaching and habitat loss. The thing I find interesting and very necessary for conservation to succeed is how the people who inhabit the snow leopard ranges need to be a part of conservation efforts. Through Conservation work and programs, people are coming to realize how important the snow leopard is to their communities.
What do you wish everyone knew about snow leopard conservation?
I think it is important to know that many of the people who live in areas where snow leopards occur are involved in the conservation of these big cats. Through conservation efforts like those of SLT, the people have benefited both environmentally and economically. In these communities, the people are involved in making products that they sell which benefits snow leopard conservation and their own families.
You recently retired after 35 years, which is an incredible accomplishment. Congratulations! How do you stay connected to animals not being at the Zoo every day?
I enjoy reading current information about animals. I am still in close communication with my past coworkers so I stay updated about the animals at the zoo.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in their career in animal care?
I would advise them to research the different types of animal careers that are available to them. Whether it be zookeeping, animal medicine, field research, etc. If they decide on a zookeeping career, I would advise them that they may not end up working with the species they are hoping for, as many keepers start where they are most needed. But whatever species they work with, they will find out that they are all pretty special. As I did.
I came to Woodland Park Zoo with a passion for working with snow leopards and ended up working with dozens of different species throughout my 35+ years. I would also let them know that working with animals can be heartbreaking at times but can also be very enriching. I feel truly honored to have spent my career working with amazing animals and some exceptionally dedicated people.
They say if you love what you do, you will never have to work another day of your life, but if you say that to someone who has been pouring their heart and soul into a job for three decades, they will likely tell you that along with the love, there is indeed work. But it’s worth it. Thanks to Allison for sharing her remarkable conservation journey with us.
Please share our stories with friends and family. You never know who you might inspire to make a difference. Thank you!
Thank you to Woodland Park Zoo for over forty years of partnership in conservation.
Photo credit: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren / Woodland Park Zoo