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Senior Macauley Callahan, Oregon Zoo Volunteer and Aspiring Veterinarian, Gains Experience and Discovers a Career Path
Callahan's work at the zoo has allowed him to "serve the people [at the zoo] and… take that passion and bring it into my own life."
April 17, 2019
Khaki bottoms, a watch, a name badge, close-toed shoes, and a ZooTeens shirt… this has been senior Macauley Callahan’s uniform for the past four summers as a volunteer at the Oregon Zoo through the ZooTeens program. In just a couple of months, Callahan will be spending his last summer with the program.
ZooTeens help visitors interact and learn about animals, even handling some themselves. They provide environmental education to zoo visitors, and talk about global and local conservation issues.
“A ZooTeen is just anybody who’s passionate about conservation, animals, trying to educate people, and [making] an impact on people’s visits to the zoo,” Callahan said.
First joining the program the summer before his freshman year, Callahan has gotten even more involved with ZooTeens throughout the years, becoming a team leader of the program and working with a smaller group called Conservation Corps during the school year.
The strong community Callahan has found and become a part of at the Oregon Zoo, along with the joy he gets from working with the animals, has become a defining aspect of his life and drawn him to pursue a career in animal science. Callahan hopes to eventually become a veterinarian, practicing and conducting research all around the world, before returning to Portland to be close to his family.
Getting Started at the Zoo
And how did this all begin? The path to becoming a ZooTeen was a surprise for Callahan. “It was just completely random,” he said. Unlike many others, Callahan did not grow up aspiring to work with animals when he was young. In 8th grade, his mom brought up the idea when they were out to dinner. “[She] was like, ‘hey have you seen this ZooTeens program for a cool thing to do over the summer?’” he said. “I was like ‘sure, yeah I’ll do it’ because I didn’t have anything that summer.”
Callahan filled out a written application and then was invited to do a group interview with about 15 other people. “Then they weigh evenly your written part [with] your interview part, to decide who gets into the program,” he said. Callahan estimates that the zoo receives about 250 applications each year and depending on how many ZooTeens return, they accept around 120 new volunteers.
There are three possible roles a beginner ZooTeen can take on, and Callahan focused on being a ZooTeen interpreter for three years. The Oregon Zoo says these teens “educate guests about the natural history of animals, global conservation issues and actions that support wildlife.”
“I [helped] run the goat yard,” Callahan said. “I’ve also presented different animals for the public to see and touch, and I talked about them. My favorite was when I got to handle snakes, and [also] hedgehogs and tortoises.”
For the past two years, Callahan has also been one of the program’s team leaders. ZooTeens are usually split up into three different groups on a normal shift, and his job is to run one of those. “I help organize people, rotate people around to make sure they’re in the right place,” he said. “I’ve helped the new ZooTeens a lot, making sure they’re supported and sending people to break. I’m also making sure people are following zoo guidelines [and] protocols… I’ll also answer any questions from the visitors.”
“When we’re wearing the shirt we represent the zoo, so our behavior has to reflect that,” Callahan said.
After ZooTeens have helped shut the zoo down, they do “sign out, which is when everybody goes and changes before circling up again,” Callahan said. “Team leaders and supervisors give three kudos each to recognize people like ‘oh, I really liked how you did this today’ or ‘you interacted with guests well today.’ It’s just really positive and we share any funny stories that happened that day.”
Callahan has gotten too many kudos to remember the count.
There is a 100 hour commitment for ZooTeens, which is “about two five-hour shifts a week,” he said. “But it’s really nice because the scheduling is really flexible.”
Joining Conservation Corps
For the past two school years, Callahan has been a part of Conservation Corps, which meets monthly. ZooTeens must apply to this program through a written application and an interview, and it’s “pretty hard to get into,” Callahan said. “There’s only about 70 out of 300 ZooTeens we have.”
These meetings “usually [start off] with a fun icebreaker game,” he said. “We have some sort of announcements like animal updates… if there’s any sort of health interest, any new animals that are coming to the zoo, new babies. We also talk about different opportunities that are coming up, a lot for service for the environment.”
The ZooTeens will then break up into their small groups to discuss their conservation projects, and Callahan’s group also meets every Saturday or Sunday. His group is called the Ocean Group because they focus “on different conservations for the ocean.”
Callahan has been proud of his groups’ work so far, some of which is highlighted at Party for a Planet, an annual event that the Oregon Zoo hosts around the time of Earth Day.
“The zoo advocates for how you can make a difference for a greener Earth. A lot of the work [my group] has done… we were able to showcase during this time,” Callahan said. His group created fun conservation-based activities and games that are “also a good way to engage visitors [and] help them understand conservation about the ocean and what they can do to help.”
This year’s Party for the Planet takes place on Saturday, April 22 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
ZooTeens not only help run the zoo, but they can also make a difference in animals’ lives. In a separate group, Callahan has been doing research on the De Brazza’s monkeys at the zoo. “The reason why we’re doing the research is that it’s very clear that these monkeys’ habitat wasn’t really the best for their welfare,” he said. “It was pretty small and basic with only like a hammock, some strings, some polls and stuff. We knew that it wasn’t the best, but the zoo said they couldn’t make changes until they actually saw proof.” The ZooTeens had decided on the De Brazza’s monkeys from their own experience with the exhibit and after talking to the zookeeper of the monkeys.
Callahan’s group found that the monkeys “were less active than their counterparts in the wild… [and] didn’t exhibit the same behaviors,” he said. “We just recently submitted our work to the zoo, so hopefully in years to come, they’ll be able to redo that exhibit so that it’s more beneficial for the monkeys’ health and wellbeing.”
The ZooTeens Community Spurs Self-Growth
Volunteering for nearly five years at the Oregon Zoo, the one thing (besides the animals) that keeps Callahan coming back is “the community,” he said. “Everybody models what it means to be a good steward of the earth… Everything about the community pushes me to be better and go out of my comfort zone. Especially since this is my fifth year, I have some really close friends that I’ve been doing this with for five years.”
Reflecting on when he was a new ZooTeen, Callahan remembers people going out of their way to make sure he was welcomed. “During lunch break, everyone goes up to this restaurant at the top of the zoo and if it’s your first year, you don’t know about that,” he said. “But people make sure you know and are like ‘hey, come get lunch with us.’”
Callahan has also seen himself grow in many ways including his “public speaking skills, leadership skills, and self-advocating [such as] setting my own schedules,” he said.
But of course, Callahan’s time at the zoo has led to a passion for animals. “I feel like every time I go to the zoo, I learn something new about them,” he said. “There’s no one to defend them except us. I see a lot of ways through the conservation stuff we do, how important that is for them, for the environment, and that people look out for them.”
Lessons Learned and Respect for the Zoo
Callahan’s whole experience has been about trying new things. “If you have an opportunity for something, honestly just take it because I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into Conservation Corps because I thought it was super elite,” he said. “But if you just try to get into things, you’re more likely than if you don’t try at all.”
Another lesson Callahan has learned is that discomfort should not steer you away from doing something. “When I became a Team Leader, originally sometimes it was kind of uncomfortable when I had to discipline people, but I knew it was important and I needed to know how to do it,” he said. Initially, Callahan had to build up the courage to go up to random people and say “hey, do you guys want to learn about this or do this activity?”
Callahan has applied La Salle’s ‘Enter to learn, Leave to serve’ motto to his work at the zoo. “I’ve been able to serve the people [at the zoo] and… take that passion and bring it into my own life,” he said. “And also from La Salle, learning to respect anybody no matter their background. Even if [someone has] an opposing opinion to me, being able to try to understand it has really helped me with my work at the zoo.”
What about all the controversy surrounding institutions like zoos and aquariums? “I definitely think there are a lot of valid arguments, but… the Oregon Zoo is part of the AZA,” Callahan said. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is a nonprofit organization that “credits zoos. They have very high levels of what they expect from zoo, so if you’re certified by them, that means you’re doing the best for the animals and their welfare.”
Not only is the Oregon Zoo accredited, but Callahan says they’re really transparent with their workers. “Whenever there’s any protests about things that people might dislike about the zoo, they will send out emails making sure we have the correct information because a lot of times, people who bash the Oregon Zoo don’t,” he said.
“I have so much respect for the zoo and what it does,” Callahan said. “They basically saved two different species: western pond turtles and [Oregon] silverspot butterflies. They have two conservation programs where they basically raise them, then release them back into the wild. In certain areas, they almost went extinct, but they’ve been able to bring those populations back.”
This fall, Callahan will be attending Washington State University in Pullman, pursuing a degree in animal science on the pre-veterinarian track with a minor in Spanish.
His goal is to get into a program Washington State has with the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he will finish his fourth year of animal science and also study for his veterinarian degree there. “That would be the dream… because I want to be able to experience a whole different other culture [while] at the same time be able to do the stuff I love: working with animals and actually impact them with my work,” Callahan said.
The University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine was voted #1 in the UK for Veterinary Science in the 2016 National Student Survey. Callahan hopes that if he studies there, his vet degree will allow him to “practice anywhere in the world.”
Right now, Callahan is “not quite sure” on what exactly he wants to do with his vet degree, but he wants “more experience with research and working with animals out in the wild,” he said.
After many years of doing research on animals and places around the world, Callahan eventually wants to return to Portland because “that’s where my family is and [I want to] do something here with my degree.”
“I got so much joy from the [ZooTeens] program that I knew this was something I wanted to do for my career,” Callahan said. “Whatever I do, as long as I work with animals, I know that I’d be happy.”