Student Stories: Alumna caring for animals at the National Zoo

We all have heard someone refer derogatively to their workplace as a zoo, but for Rebecca Miller, it really is. And that's a good thing.

The 2005 graduate of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences works at The Smithsonian National Zoological Park -- commonly known as the National Zoo -- in Washington, D.C.

"Each day I get to work with some amazing creatures," she said. "I look forward to each day, and I’m excited to come to work."

Miller, a wildlife and fisheries science major who minored in biology, became interested in zookeeping after completing an internship at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, Penn State's nature center in Huntingdon County, Pa.

"It was the best choice I have ever made in my life," she said. "There, I applied what I had learned from my major. Spending time with the raptors, amphibians and reptiles became the highlight of my days. I was really able to get a feel for what I wanted to do with my life." 

She still regularly uses skills she learned in college every day at work.

"I'm happy to say that just about every class associated with my major involved some sort of work that I still use today," Miller said.

Zookeeping is much more than just feeding animals and cleaning up after them, Miller said.

"We train all of our animals to participate in their own care, from teaching a beaver to step onto a scale to training a sea lion to allow us to make a blood withdrawal," she said. "The seals are even taught to let us brush scraps of food from their teeth on a daily basis, both to demonstrate to the public how we care for the animals and to make sure the animals' teeth and gums stay healthy."

One of her most memorable recent experiences while working at the zoo involved a female California sea lion. She noticed the animal wasn't eating much and was keeping her mouth partially open.

"When I looked in at her teeth, I saw that a tab from a soda can was stuck around a couple of teeth in the back of her mouth," Miller said. "Because of the training and the trust that I've developed with the animal, I was able to go into her mouth with a set of pliers and remove the tab. Little things like this reinforce my belief that I am here for a reason and that I am helping to provide a good life for the animals in my care."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010