Volunteer to Conservation Manager with Zoo Keeper Sara Fee

Sara Fee is General Manager of The Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project, a multi-faceted conservation NGO based in a remote region of Gabon, Central Africa. Having spent much of her career in zoos, Sara talks about her transition into the field and the important role zoos played in her conservation journey.

Describe your current role?

“My role is pretty all encompassing. I’m involved in the day to day care of the sanctuary gorillas and consult on the behaviours of our island rehabilitation gorillas – helping with the process of getting them back into the wild. I’m also responsible for all onsite project management, everything from repairing docks to accounting, and developing additional programs.

Currently a focus of mine is the professional volunteer program; reaching out to people overseas who can help develop our local operations, which is how I originally came here. I arrived with a set of skills and education that are not readily available to local staff. The goal is for people like me to streamline operational procedures and then train and hand off those procedures to local staff so the project can continue without the need for expat management.”

What is your background?

“How far back do you want to go?”

Oh, I was thinking early childhood, your first steps, what kind of toys you had… Just the conservation career related stuff is fine.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Wildlife Management, although I didn’t go to college right out of high school and had several office jobs and worked retail for a while. After graduating I ended up in a zoo internship and decided that zookeeping was going to be the route for me. Managed to get a full-time position as a primate keeper at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and spent just over eight years with them before coming out to the field.”

How do you make that transition from zookeeping to field work?

“Well first you have to go for it, you just have to make that decision, and then you have to do it.”

There’s a piece of advice for the Conservation Careers hall of fame.

“Initially I came as a volunteer but apparently did such a good job that they asked me to come back as manager. Volunteering I think is one of the harder things to do for a lot of people in the zoo community because, as keepers, we don’t make a lot of money. And unfortunately travelling long distances overseas and committing large amounts of time really aren’t conducive to maintaining a zoo job.

But many zoos are now specifically setting up grants and conservation funds for sending keepers, or other staff members, to the field. They want their employees to have those experiences and bring that information back. So, you have to use the resources that are available to you. We have a volunteer here now being funded by her zoo.”

What skills/traits have you found particularly useful in the field that you developed in zoos?

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“The ability to adapt quickly to different changing situations. I will definitely blame my zoo career for that and I’m ever so grateful for it. Having to be creative with quick fixes, making snap decisions, but also thinking about the long term. That has been really helpful here because things do go wrong, it is remote and ‘rustic’ so you do need to be able to think on your feet. Also, just the physical strength I gained from being a zookeeper has helped in the day to day activities.”

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced adjusting to field life?

“The spiders; I really don’t like spiders. Otherwise the toilets don’t flush and the showers aren’t really showers but I’m fine with it. In fact, jumping into the lagoon with a bar of soap is one of the things I will miss when I go back to ‘normal life’. I try to see the real challenges more as inconveniences than anything else… But the spiders. I have a hard time with the spiders. We’re slowly making friends.”

How important is the role of zoos in conservation?

“They are major influencers in people’s thinking. We always hear about ambassador animals, how people would never see these species otherwise, especially in big cities, and so they can inspire visitors to want to do more for nature and conservation. That’s one aspect. But also, a lot of zoos are directly working with in-situ projects, not just donating some money, but being actively involved, sending their people and even starting projects of their own.”

How have zoos inspired you?

“I worked with a lot of passionate people. Passion is a word that I think is rightfully associated with zoo staff. You need it, you need it to work in the field too, because it’s tough. So, I’ve taken inspiration from colleagues but more importantly, zoos gave me an opportunity to learn about gorillas and it’s the gorillas which really inspire me. There’s something about them which is so similar to us, or maybe even the ideal that I want to see in people.”

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

“Take opportunities. I was very fortunate to get my current job, it was right place, right time, but I did bust my ass off to get here. So, always work hard and try your best. If you have a specific set of skills like I did, try and get your foot in the door with those skills. But also remember to find somewhere you can continue to grow. Don’t ever stop learning, don’t ever stop growing.”

The Fernan-Vaz Gorilla Project is welcoming international zookeepers as part of their new Professional Zoo Volunteer Program. To find out  more please contact [email protected] or for general information on the project see www.gorillasgabon.com

By Patrick Pester
Writing articles from the field on a laptop that has a funny burning smell. 

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