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One wild dream job

Marketplace Staff Jun 29, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: For some specialty occupations it’s clear how to learn your craft. Wanna be an accountant? Take the CPA exam. Lawyer? Get your JD. But what if you’ve always dreamed of working with lions and tigers and bears . . . oh my? A college in Moorpark, Calif., could be just the ticket. Marketplace contributor Cash Peters checked it out:

CASH PETERS: They’ve been training animals at the Moorpark College Zoo since 1990. The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, it’s called, or EATM — which I guess they could also do. According to Mara Rodriguez, one of the spokes-staff, students get to observe-m and train-m, too:

MARA RODRIGUEZ: This a training ground for anyone who wants to work with exotic animals. So the people that want to work in a zoo and be a zookeeper, the people that want to tame lions, the people that want to stand up in front of kids and talk about an opossum — this is the place where they would begin.”

PETERS: And if I actually did learn to tame a lion, would I bring my own chair or would you supply the chair?

RODRIGUEZ: You would have to bring your own. We have a chair shortage here because there’s such a high demand for lion tamers.

I knew that. But each year 50 new students arrive at the zoo, eager to learn the animal basics, such as which end of a buffalo to stick the food into and which end to steer well clear of when it comes out again. First year poopnik Cory Gianelloni:

CORY GIANELLONI: You come here and you know exactly what you’re going to get into. They say that on Christmas Day at 5 in the morning you’re going to be scooping poop, and Christmas Day at 5 in the morning we were all spraying out poop in the rain.

(GIANELLONI: Good boy, yes he is. Good boy . . . .)

Well, you’re very sweet. But he wasn’t talking to me. Cory was training a stork called Rork to fly across a stage.

GIANELLONI: On your mark, on your mark. Rork, on your mark. Rork, on your mark.


I know. It sounds like he’s stepping on a chew toy. But it’s a stork, honest.

In all, the zoo has 115 species. Deneka Wellameier signed up because she’d always wanted to train dolphins.

DENEKA WELLAMEIER: I said “I’ll come here. I’ll learn all about the things I need to know. And then, hopefully, it’ll make me be a little bit more valuable than the next guy who wants to work with dolphins, and I’ll have a job.”

PETERS: So can we go to the dolphin enclosure now?

WELLAMEIER: We don’t have dolphins here.

PETERS: Oh boy, you must have been bummed out when you arrived.

WELLAMEIER: No, I knew. I knew

PETERS: All those years of planning, and look what happened — no dolphins.

WELLAMEIER: The one marine mammal we have here is a California sea lion.

* * * * *

PETERS: So can I see you train something?

GIANELLONI: I guess. I could train Rork or Chiara.

WELLAMEIER: Chiara’s a lion.

PETERS: I wanna see you all train a lion. Have you got a chair? Go get a chair.

Actually, it would have been great to do some of the training myself. But hey, I Googled lions — they’re dangerous. I mean, if a stork goes nuts, you can always subdue it with a rolled-up newspaper. But lion bites, they’re for keeps. Ask Mara:

RODRIGUEZ: They have claws, they have teeth, all of these things that we need to teach our students how to deal with.

PETERS: How many students do you lose in a year?

RODRIGUEZ: It totally depends. We lose anywhere from I’ll say one to fifteen.

PETERS: Oh, they die?

RODRIGUEZ: Every year, we start with 50.

PETERS: How many die in a year? How many get eaten?

RODRIGUEZ: None of them.

They drop out because of grades, not deaths. Wrong end of the stick, there.

Anyway, the time had come for lion taming!

TRAINER: Good girl!

I thought it was going to be wild and primal. (ROAR) Yeah, like that. That’s a lion.

Whereas this one. Clearly, you can overtrain these things because it just kind of rolled over and lay there.

TRAINER: Chiara, come here. In your crate. In your crate.

And that’s why there are no lion-taming shows on the radio. Anyway, the EATM . . . (EATM!) . . . course is a success. Myklin Hines, another spokestaff person, says that 80 percent of students like the ones I met leave school and somehow survive in the wild:

PETERS: Where do you expect them to end up? . . . [whispers hint] Jail.

MYKLIN HINES: No! People might not get the preferred position that they want, such as working with marine mammals or dolphins. But they will get a foot in the door in an animal professional job.

And for legal reasons I should emphasize again, not jail.

In Moorpark, California, I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace.

GIANELLONI: Good boy! Such a handsome boy!

Oh, stop. I’m getting all embarrassed.

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