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Summer zoo internship leads to a career

By Elizabeth Engleking

Noah Shields holding a reptile.

Photo by Elizabeth Engeleking

​Noah Shields teaches visitors at the Columbian Park Zoo about the animals there, including reptiles. Shields earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry in 2008 and a master's degree in youth development and agricultural education in 2011. ​Full-size image (142 KB)

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​On a recent afternoon, Noah Shields walked through the animal exhibits at the Columbian Park Zoo in Lafayette, Ind., near Purdue University's West Lafayette campus. He thought back a few years to when he was a Purdue student. Back then, he expected he'd get a job in public health or educating youth through a student organization like 4-H.

​He didn't expect to be teaching with exotic animals. Now, the senior zookeeper shares his love of caring for animals with the zoo's visitors, especially students.

​"I honestly couldn't be happier," said Shields, who earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry in 2008 and a master's in youth development and agricultural education in 2011. "It just came out of nowhere and I love every minute of it. It was a career field that I wasn't even looking into, and since I decided to look at it and give it a chance, I fell in love with it."

​His path to zookeeping started the summer before Shields' senior year at Purdue. A friend told Shields that the zoo was looking for a camp counselor. Shields had led 4-H camps and worked with large animal production back home, so he decided to apply for the position.

​ He got the job and fell in love with the whole experience: the outdoors, the kids and the animals. He still recalls that summer at the zoo with excitement and enthusiasm.

​"Within the first few weeks of my first summer, I realized that this job had everything I was looking for," Shields said. "And it was a stunning revelation for me since I had never considered it before then."

​Shields said that summer experience was so important that he knew he wanted to work with animals and educate zoo visitors for his career. The experience inspired him to pursue his master's degree.

​Part of the appeal was working with exotic animals. Shields said it has been rewarding to develop bonds with the animals in his care. Shields said he bonded with one animal in particular: an African grey parrot named Soolai. She performs a ritual with Shields that she would have used in the wild, the zookeeper said. It is the parrot's way of showing her affection for him.

​"When I first walk into Soolai's holding area in the mornings, I always tell her good morning and am always greeted by a series of chirps, whistles and words," Shields said. "It's very fulfilling as a zookeeper when you can develop a bond with an animal in your care, and building a bond with an intelligent parrot is just icing on the cake."

​He also enjoys watching the animals interact with each other. The river otters are his favorite.

​"All three of them have different personalities and ways of interacting," said Shields. When he walks through the indoor holding area, the otters race to the fence to greet Shields.

​Shields not only trains and teaches the zoo animals, he also works with other wide-eyed animals: kids.

​"The younger kids are really excited to be there because they are just starting to learn about the topics in class, and they are so energetic," said Shields.

​Shields also said he enjoys working with college students. The older students share a passion for animals, but they also appeal to Shields' intellectual side.

​"I enjoy their knowledge and having deeper conversations with them," said Shields.

​Those conversations can get pretty deep. Shields said he talks about animal nutrition and feeding schedules, what keeps an animal busy and entertained and animal training. The college students are willing to have these deeper conversations and learn more about the animals.

​Shields said he has a dream job even though it wasn't what he first expected to be doing in life.

​"I never regret a single minute of it," Shields said. ​