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© Yussef Rafik 2020

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Rick Schwartz Interview


Ever wished you could travel the world raising awareness for wildlife conservation while meeting cool people and even cooler animals? Well this week I had the opportunity to speak to a man for whom this is reality - Rick Schwartz!


Rick is an Animal Ambassador, conservation advocate, and a man on a mission! His mission is to help connect people with the natural world around them, both on a local and global scale, and to make people aware of the impacts we are having on the environment.


After graduating from Moorpark College in Exotic Animal Training and Management in 1993, Rick has held positions with Guide Dogs for the Blind and with San Diego Zoo, where he worked as an Animal Care Supervisor and then a Senior Zoo Keeper. These days Rick is working as San Diego Zoo’s Animal Ambassador, and it’s this that has allowed him to travel around the world visiting various conservation projects and represent San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park.


Rick’s work as an Animal Ambassador also involves him and his animals appearing regularly on American television shows, where his enthusiasm and exceptional knowledge shines through to provide viewers with an entertaining yet informative insight into the lives of some of this planet’s most incredible creatures.


As a spokesperson for wildlife, Rick has made appearances on shows such as Good Morning America, NBC’s Today Show, The Late Late Show with James Corden, Live! with Kelley, and other family-focused programs. He is also the host of San Diego Zoo Kids, a television channel dedicated to providing 24 hour educational content for children’s hospitals across America.


As glamorous as his job sounds, it’s certainly not without its difficulties! And it’s Rick’s hardworking-attitude and his dedication to educating others about the importance of wildlife conservation that made me delighted to get the chance to speak with him. So without further ado, let’s get into the questions:


What does wildlife conservation mean to you? And why is it so important people should be aware of it?

To me, wildlife conservation in its most basic form means preserving wildlife. But as they say, it is all in the details. To preserve wildlife, we need to look not only at balanced ecosystems that support the wildlife, but also the human element that will always influence wildlife. To work in wildlife conservation, you must be able to understand the interconnectivity of plants, animals, habitats and people.


The drive to make people aware of the need for wildlife conservation isn’t just about saving the cute and fluffy animals. Yes, cute and fluffy helps in getting attention, but if we fail to recognize our own dependence on healthy and balanced ecosystems, we will ultimately fail ourselves.


In your opinion, what’s the most important thing that we as individuals can do to do our bit for conservation?

The most important thing an individual can do for conservation? It’s pretty easy. Just do something! I know it seems simplistic, but the biggest challenge we have in our conservation efforts is indifference. Someone’s indifference towards wildlife and habitats is very damaging. So, if you aren’t indifferent, if you want to do something, then do something - anything! Start small. Neighbourhood clean ups. Creek-bed, riverside and beach clean-ups are easy to coordinate and have a direct impact.


Even easier? Spread the word. Social media has given everyone a voice to some degree or another. Find and follow reputable and accredited zoological facilities and conservation organizations. Share and re-share their educational content. We can overcome the indifference of others through education. Help raise funds for conservation is another good way to help. Even if you feel you haven’t raised much, I know every little bit helps the teams in the field doing the work.


Can you tell me a little bit about your job? What does a typical day look like for you?

The best part about my job is there is no typical day. Well, maybe that’s the second or third best part. But either way, my point is, there is no typical day. I can spend several days in the office, communicating via email, phone calls and meetings. Or I can be at the San Diego Zoo or at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park working with our animals and keepers. Or on location working with our local media.


I spend time in Los Angeles and New York working with different media to raise awareness for wildlife and conservation as well. And I am even fortunate enough to spend time in the field with our conservation researchers and scientists in places like Kenya, Botswana and Queensland Australia to name a few. Oh, and I do a lot of community talks as well, so I might have a day that starts at the Zoo, has me in the community later in the day talking about our work and then end my day at the office. Like I said, it’s never typical.


What do you enjoy most about your work? And are there any drawbacks?

It’s hard to narrow down what I enjoy most to just one thing. I’d have to say it’s about connections. There is nothing that matches the connections and relationships one has with the animals they work with. It really is unique and a blessing. The other part of that is connecting with people. I feel very fortunate to have connected with the people I have met around the world due to my work.


How did you progress from zookeeper to Animal Ambassador?

Prior to working at the San Diego Zoo, I had been working in a variety of different animal care and animal training jobs. One of the very rewarding parts was always helping connect people and animals though education and conversation. When I joined the San Diego Zoo as a keeper I was in a department that did a lot of the educational presentations and work with local media because the animals were ambassador animals.


Over the years doing educational talks and media work just became part of my job. About 8 years into my career with the San Diego Zoo they opened up a temporary position to be an Ambassador for the organization. The first year of doing that went well enough they asked me to stay on full-time in that position. Though the work does frequently take me away from my one-on-one time with animals, I am still connecting people to wildlife and inspiring them to join in our conservation efforts.


How do zoos play an important role in wildlife conservation?

On the surface, zoos are the main touch point for the average person to connect with wildlife that they may never otherwise see or hear about. Digging deeper into the work zoos do you see that the work keepers and veterinarians do with animals in the zoo is then used as baseline work for those working in the field. And often those keepers and vets are sent out to train people in the field in animal care, so sick, injured and orphaned wildlife can be cared for and sent back into the wild. In addition to all of that, zoos are also actively raising funds for conservation work. For example, many zoos in the US work directly with conservation efforts with local wildlife and wildlife projects in other countries. The funds they raise at the Zoo then go directly to the saving of many species.


Where do you stand on the zoo debate? i.e. their role in education vs. their role in entertainment?

Honestly, I didn’t realise this is a debate. Yes, people come to the zoo for an enjoyable day and end up getting a lot of education about animals. And that’s because today’s reputable zoos are working aggressively to educate people about the animals they are visiting and the conservation work that is happening in the world.


Do you have a favourite kind of animal to work with?

Yes, I absolutely do have a favourite species of animal to work with. The Binturong, also known as the bearcat, is my most favourite animal to work with. And my second favourite is every single animal after that. This stems from a particular binturong that I worked with early in my career at the San Diego Zoo. We ended up with a wonderful relationship that can best be described as a best-friend at work.


If you could bring back one species from extinction, what would it be and why?

I am hesitant to answer this because I would not want to bring back a species from extinction if we haven’t fixed the issue that caused the extinction. Otherwise, what’s the point? That said, if it was a situation where we have fixed the problem, I can honestly say I don’t think I could pick just one. Each species we have lost to extinction in my lifetime played an important role in the environment in which they were native to. How can you pick just one?


What inspires you to do what you do?

I’d have to say it started at a young age. I have always gravitated towards animals and have always wanted to learn more about them - The animal kingdom fascinates me. Of course, as you learn more about them, you quickly learn they are all facing some serious challenges in the wild. I can’t not do something to try to save them.


What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I can say the best bit of advice is something I learned along the way in my career. Do everything you can to understand people and how to effectively communicate with them. You need to make sure they want to hear what you have to say and what you say is truly heard. We cannot save wildlife by ourselves, so it is imperative that we effectively communicate to others why conservation is important and how others can get involved.


Thanks for chatting with me Rick, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, specifically to future zookeepers, zoologists and conservationists. You need to know, it is not easy or glamorous work. You will work crazy hours, you won’t have weekends or holidays off. You will get paid less than you should be as well. But if this is your calling, none of that will matter.


If you’d like to keep up to date with Rick’s work, then be sure to go follow him on Instagram: @ZookeeperRick


You can also watch some of Rick’s TV appearances in the videos below: