In a 2009 paper for Administrative Science Quarterly, J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson studied zookeepers and found that the profession was about the closest anyone in the modern, secular world comes to having a calling—the sort of intensely meaningful career that Martin Luther said could turn work into a divine offering. Zookeeping is dirty, repetitive, and poorly paid. And yet people volunteer for years, move across the country, and accept major sacrifices in their personal lives to be able to do it.
In interviews with zookeepers, Bunderson and Thompson found that their feelings about their work ran much deeper than a standard survey metric like job satisfaction could capture. Again and again, they used phrases like “I knew this is what I was meant to do” and described a pull toward work with animals starting in early childhood. The sense of calling also came with a feeling of moral obligation. Zookeepers described an intense dedication to the animals they worked with, and to the zoos’ mission of promoting conservation and breeding endangered species.
Nemes takes pride in the breeding programs that Capron Park, and most US zoos, are part of. She tells me about the black-footed ferret, which was saved from extinction thorough captive breeding and has been reintroduced in the wild. “That’s amazing,” she says. “Extinct is forever.”