Ten questions with Zoo Education Curator Rick LoBello

Conservation Careers Blogger Naima Montacer was excited to speak to her friend and former boss Rick LoBello about his past. Rick LoBello is Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo. He has also worked in several National Parks including Big Bend, Yellowstone, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns and now is the current Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo. He is also very involved in local environmental issues, the author of Guide to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Home to Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas, and Webmaster of iloveparks.com. Here he brings us all in on his conservation career pathway…

Give a brief description of your current conservation job. 

I am Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo. I oversee all of the education programs including formal school programs (called Zoo Adventure Programs) and informal programs for general zoo guests. Zoo Adventure Programs are science standard aligned classes. Informal programs are held at animal exhibits in collaboration with the zookeepers. We strive to build a connection between our guests and the animals, to create a feeling of empathy to inspire people to make changes in their lives to help wildlife. I also spearhead many of our conservation initiatives such as our stand on the palm oil crisis. 

What is the best thing about living in El Paso?

The best thing for me, personally, is the fact that I’ve always loved animals around the world and I’m working in a place where these animals are within seconds of my office. I would much rather see them in the wild than in the zoo but zoos are very important to protecting animals in the wild.

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Most surprising thing you learned at your job? 

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is just how complex the zoo is, especially coming from a National Park background. It’s not easy maintaining animals from around the world. Our number one priority is to make sure these animals have healthy lives at the zoo. We are constantly challenged by making sure exhibits are in the best conditions, animals have proper nutrition, health care, etc. We need a lot of resources, money, and staff to accomplish our goals to provide a high standard of care.

What are 3 key points in your career that led you to where you are today?

  1. In junior high I conducted my first Science Fair project: a genetics project breeding laboratory mice at my house in which involved a few escapees. This memorable experience helped me realize I was interested in science and animals.
  2. When I was in my early teens I was really shy yet discovered I loved to sing. Joining the choir pushed me out of my shell into the social person I am today.
  3. I attended college at William Jewel College in Missouri where the motto is the “Campus of Achievement”. From day one I was encouraged to achieve beyond my classes. I organized the school’s first Earth Week amongst other activities. I had two jobs, one in the Biology department with the freedom to create education programs, and the other at the Kansas City Museum of History and Science. These experiences prepared me for future employment and also led me to my mentor Dr. Richard Baldauf, the Director of Education and former head of the Wildlife Department at Texas A&M.

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What did Dr. Baldauf do for you that you consider him your mentor?

I met Dr. Baldauf by attending his night course in herpetology at the local museum. After classes I would ask questions and we immediately built a relationship. He appreciated my go-getter attitude and I was eager to learn. When Dr. Baldauf had an opportunity to hire summer help, he hired me.

Dr. Baldauf was a very active environmentalist at the same time Rachel Carson put out her famous book Silent Spring. I saw his presentation “Listen to the Earth” that was all about living with the Earth by simply paying attention to what nature is trying to teach us about the ecosystem. He introduced me to the Earth Day movement.

Is this your end goal in your conservation career? If not, where do you see yourself in ten years?

I have a number of things I’m thinking about but two that stick out. It all depends on the opportunities that come across my path.

  1. Director of a zoo or work for a major international conservation organization. Basically, continue the work I do now, at a higher level.
  2. Create or get involved with an organization that encourages cross platform NGO collaboration and encourage the public to get involved with NGOs.

What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?

The first thing you need to get these jobs is experience. You need more than a degree. If you don’t qualify for the job, gain experience in an internship or volunteering. Many people, including one of my staff members, started as a volunteer.

When the opportunity isn’t there, make your own. I needed to gain communication skills to qualify for a job at Yellowstone National Park. I got creative and asked my advisor if I could use our snake collection to give educational talks to school groups. Next thing I knew, word was out, and I was presenting to Boy Scout groups and schools.

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How do you keep yourself motivated for conservation work?

  1. Read a lot of material from conservation around the world. Set up Google alerts on topics you’re interested in (for me: palm oil, elephants, and the Chihuahuan desert). I receive targeted news in the form of daily emails from news sources around the world directly to my inbox.
  2. Networking with people of shared interests
  3. Going out and connecting with nature.
  4. Writing about nature.

Your favorite conservation memory?

A day in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. I was a Park Ranger as well as Executive Director of the Big Bend Natural History Association.

I was out hiking one day with a friend and stopped for a rest at Boot Springs. I lay on my back on a picnic table with my boots off relaxing. I heard rocks falling off the trail in the distance. I first thought I was listening to a heard of javelinas running or perhaps people on horseback. As I looked up, I saw deer running away from something. I figured it was hikers that spooked the deer. Within seconds of seeing the deer I saw the mountain lion in pursuit of its prey. The mountain lion didn’t see me resting and ran straight towards me. I ducked thinking he was going to jump over me. Instead he ran off to the side giving me an amazing close up view of this mountain lion in hot pursuit of two white tailed deer. I picked up my camera to try and snap a picture, but he was gone.

Anything you want people who come to conservation-careers.com to know about a career in conservation?

You are a human being. You were not designed as a living creature to live your life in a building or a car or an airplane. You were designed to be outside.

If you have any passion at all to ensuring our future generations are connected to the environment, go for a career in conservation. Being involved in conservation will enrich your life tremendously.

Rick’s story is inspiring from a young child curious about mice genetics, to African lions just a few steps from his current office. Our career paths change throughout life but Rick reminds us to keep your passions close and if the door won’t open, push it down so you can walk through it.

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Pictures all by Rick LoBello. To learn more visit his website at RickLoBello.com.

“Rick’s words were motivating to listen to and made me jealous at times. His interaction with a wild mountain lion will bring envy to any animal lover. As a conservationist at heart and former zoo employee it was fabulous catching up with an old friend and learning from his answers” – Naima.

About the author

Naima MontacerNaima Montacer is an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist with a Masters of Science in Biology. Naima has extensive environmental education program and curriculum development experience from several zoos and science centers. She now works as a freelance writer and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Learn more on her website EnviroAdventures.com.

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