Macalester Today Summer 2010

Zookeper

At St. Paul's Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, Jessica Madole ’99 does everthing from illustrating signs to training volunteers.

By Lynette Lamb
Photos By Kelly Macwilliams

When polar bear ill ustra tions were needed for a new exhibit at the Como Zoo, Jessica Madole ’99 drew them. When the zoo needed a live animal show this summer, she learned how to train chickens.

Being flexible and multitalented is an unspoken part of the job description for Madole, an interpretive coordinator and co-manager of visitor services at the popular St. Paul zoo and conservatory. And during the last year she has picked up a third job, that of on-site project manager for interpretive displays for the zoo’s new state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit, which opened last month. “Each of these jobs would be a separate one at most places,” she says. But hers is a city-owned and operated, small-scale operation, despite handling up to 2 million visitors a year. So Madole must be a Renaissance woman, a role she has grown to love.

For example, she knew nothing about plants when she came to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory after 12 years at the Science Museum of Minnesota. And now? “I know about almost every plant we have,” she reports happily. “I still can’t keep a plant alive at home, but I don’t need to.” She has written materials and interpretive guide talks on nearly every plant in the conservatory, “and we’re getting new stuff every day,” she says.

Although Madole is part of the education department, she’s not involved with the official classes. “If you learn something at the zoo that you didn’t pay for, it’s my job,” she says. What’s included in that definition? Signage, literature, exhibits, zookeeper and gardener talks, seal demonstrations, training demonstrations, and the children’s story time, among other things.

The new challenge of Como Zoo is what lured Madole there, despite her love for the Science Museum, where she started working as a high school senior. She was hired to work on the Jurassic Park exhibit, and stayed on, ending up as a program supervisor.

While majoring in anthropology at Mac, the St. Paul native often worked full time, or close to it. Over the years she had “practically every job there was,” particularly enjoying the special exhibits, which ranged in topics from bats to circuses. She’d get six weeks to become an expert on a topic and develop a training program about it for interpretive staff and volunteers. “It was really fun to do stuff like research the bearded lady at the circus sideshow,” she says. “Just having to become knowledgeable about something in a hurry was great.” What better use for a liberal arts education?

Learning new things has continued for Madole at Como, where one week she might be asked to research and buy a sound system and the next she may be training customer service staff to run the seasonal butterfly exhibit. She also developed the zookeeper talks at the zoo. “Before that you might spend all day at the zoo and never see a zookeeper,” says Madole, “or at least not know you had.” As for the new polar bear exhibit, that had a learning curve all its own. Among the other tidbits she’s taken in: Polar bears have a keen sense of smell. “They love it during State Fair time,” laughs Madole. “If the wind is blowing right, they’re in heaven.”