Name: Dena Strange
Section: Primates Supervisor
Hometown: Houston, TX
Total years of animal care experience: 27 years total, but I’ve been at the Houston Zoo since October of 1990.
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. –Charles Darwin This one helps me get through changes in my life!
And: Laughter is the shortest distance between two people –Victor Borge
Favorite Animals: Penguins! Although baby flamingo chicks come in a close second! In my own section, I love all of the animals, but for all different reasons, mostly based on the individuals rather than the species.
Special Interests: Handy crafts – I like making handmade jewelry, candles, and baskets. I love any festival and always go to Greek and International festivals as well. In my spare time, I like watching sci-fi TV shows like Stargate, Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica, and Stargate Universe. I also love reading classical literature.
Do you have any animals at home?
I have four cats: Drusilla (Dru), Agrippena (Aggie), Clytemnestra (Clyde), and Euripides (Rip). The first three names are characters in Roman or Greek literature Euripides is a Greek author of classical literature!
Education/Training: I attended Southwest Texas State University and graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology. In high school, I volunteered at the Houston Zoo in the Children’s Zoo section as well as in college I volunteered for the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, VA which is an off-exhibit breeding facility for the National Zoo. While there, I had the opportunity to work with endangered species and get some true zoo keeping experience! I also volunteered in two other national parks during my college summers as an interpreter.
What would you recommend for someone attending college who wants to be a zookeeper?
Take any classes dealing with science. If you’re interested in primates, take anthropology as well. Any primate class will help. General biology courses will also cut it…do a lot of reading on your own! Just take any classes in science or behavior.
Jobs: I was a Park Ranger for Padre Island National Seashore as an interpreter (seasonal). My job was to do nature walks, work in the gift shop, and do programs for school groups.
What made you want to be a zookeeper?
Well, it’s actually an interesting story! When I was younger, I went to an Occupational Therapist. After taking a few tests, the results told me what I should and should not do for a career. I was told never to be an interior decorator, along with several other interesting professions. I learned, though, that I should work outdoors and would do well working with animals. So my mother signed me up to volunteer at the Houston Zoo. After working in the Children’s Zoo and the Conservation and Research Center. I found out that I really enjoyed the job!
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a zookeeper?
Volunteering is my best advice. It’s all on-the-job learning. We get thirty or more applications for every job posting, so if you have animal cleaning experience, it helps! If you have primate experience, it helps even more! We’ve hired a lot of our interns, so becoming an intern is a great stepping stone to getting a job in the Houston Zoo. A lot of college students are surprised that when they graduate, they can’t just become a curator. You can’t just walk into a curator position right out of school; you have to work your way up.
What’s your favorite animal story?
We used to have a Black and White Colobus Monkey named Zoe…she now lives at the Portland Zoo raising her first child, so you know this end well…
I’ve know Zoe since birth and when she was a young adult she started to develop cataracts in both her eyes. She adapted really well and was able to move around her cage, with lots of caution, she didn’t jump, but would climb or walk where ever she need to go, she interacted with her cage mates just fine and was able to find food by patting her hand around on the ground or in feeder baskets. Since the zoo didn’t have the resources back then and she was doing ok, we just monitored the progress of the cataracts, but one day a veterinary ophthalmologist from Texas A&M was interested in looking at animal eyes and was very interested and confident that he could do cataract surgery on Zoe. So one day, we loaded her up in a crate and drove her up to College Station where the surgery was performed. The surgery was long, but very successful. Even before we got her home, she was looking around her crate with renewed interest.
Once we released her back into her cage, it was amazing; she was looking around like she had never been there before. A few minutes’ later tears came to my eyes as she looked at her reflection for the first time in a shallow water tub and she touched the water to break the reflection as if to say “is that really me?”
Written by Candace VanScyoc