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The Toronto Zoo supports the relationship between animal care professionals and its animals with a psychological health and wellness group.Provided

The first thing wildlife care keeper Rebecca Rice wants to say about why Toronto Zoo is an excellent place to work is that her job doesn’t feel like a job. “I’m in the outreach and discovery department. I take animals out for guests to meet them, and I’m involved in all the bird of prey demonstrations,” says Rice. “It’s just so much fun.”

But there are far more serious aspects to her work, Rice adds. “A lot of this job is dealing with people, in fact. The zoo animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, and we speak for them.

“In our bird-of-prey demonstrations, we ask people not to throw apple cores or banana peels out their car windows because they attract mice and rats to the roadside,” says Rice. “And then hunting owls and red-tailed hawks will swoop in front of cars they don’t see coming. There is a lot that people don’t realize about the wildlife ecology right around them.”

The zoo is an ecosystem of its own, says its human resources director, Valerie Peticca. “We have a huge area, where we maintain a massive infrastructure, and deal with numerous responsibilities,” she says. “One day we’re talking about conservation science breeding programs for endangered animals, the next day finance and the next day about nutrition for a geriatric gorilla. From wildlife care keeper to plumber to habitat designer to veterinarian, there’s such a variety of work here, we call ourselves a city within the city.”

The zoo was a leading-edge institution in its sheer, 270-hectare size when it opened in 1974, and remains so as it approaches its 50th anniversary. “We just received our accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is huge in the zoo world,” says Rice. “It confirms us as a world-class zoo with high standards. In my own work, that means when I take animals out of their habitats so people can meet them, they retain some control over their lives – they choose whether to participate and when they go back inside.”

The accreditation is based on many factors, including animal well-being and welfare, as seen in “the state-of-the-art orangutan habitat with the longest-living orangutan in North America,” Peticca says. Reaching that standard of care is in accord with the zoo’s own values, which it extends to employees and guests. Toronto Zoo is the first zoo in Canada to participate in an innovative program with the B.C. Parks Foundation called PaRx, Canada’s national nature prescription program. When medical practitioners prescribe nature to their patients, the zoo offers half-price admission.

“We’re very focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, engaging with community partners, working with school groups, educating the public,” says Peticca. “Mental health support is very important for us – we have a whole psychological health and wellness group and a social worker who deals specifically with animal care professionals. She comes on site to provide support when needed.”

“Keepers experience a lot of grief when their animals pass away,” Rice says, “and it’s really nice to have someone to talk to. They are not pets, they are wild animals, but we do get attached to them, and they get attached to us. Lions, and rhinos, when they see their favourite people, they often come closer to them. It’s a two-way street.”

And something the zoo looks for in its hiring process, Peticca says. “We want a sense of people’s commitment to the natural world and science, because we want the great group of staff that we have, and we want to support them.”

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