Jef Tingley: Journey to Zoo Keeper
Jef Tingley has always loved animals of all kinds. Growing up in New Mexico he would visit the local zoo, but he also attracted a small menagerie wherever he went. “I remember as I was walking to elementary school there was a man on the corner who gave me a pigeon. I took the pigeon to school and bribed the librarian to let me keep it under a milk crate where I fed it french fries. And since I was a latch-key kid I just brought him in the house after school and then my dad let me keep him on the roof,” Jef shared with a laugh.
After moving to Dallas as an adult, Jef began his career in media and public relations, eventually launching his own business. But he still found himself drawn to animal care, so he looked into volunteering at the Dallas Zoo. It was the perfect way to give back to the community, so Jef continued to volunteer his time over the span of 15 years. “I had a bit of a zoo hiatus due to work, but about two years ago I really started making it a priority and scheduling my volunteer time like a client meeting,” Jef said. He was assigned to the Upper Wilds area of the zoo with okapi, red river hogs, and bongos for about eight months, and then heard that the Children’s Zoo, which was filled with farm animals, would be rolled into a larger zookeeper assignment called Keeper Development, and he jumped at the opportunity. “Keeper Development has the mission of growing keepers and creating a path to become a keeper,” explained Jef. “There was a lot of full animal interaction, and so a year ago I realized that, even though it was counterintuitive, I loved the Tuesdays and Thursdays that I was hot and sweaty and raking up poo in the Children’s Zoo.”
It was that very counterintuitive experience that led Jef to consider a mid-life career change. He brought up the idea with his husband, as well as his father, who both encouraged him to follow his passion. “When I made my decision to pursue a job at the Dallas Zoo, I started talking to all of the zoo keepers, working alongside them, and asking them all of my questions,” Jef said. “I even met a keeper who worked with the okapi and had come from a banking career, so I realized that I could come into this job the opposite way, rather than the typical zoological degree and internship.”
When an on-call position opened in the Keeper Development area of the zoo earlier this summer, Jef interviewed for the job, was hired, and started immediately began working a 30-hour per week schedule, laying aside most of his marketing clients and work. “Everyone has been really supportive, and I’ve just transitioned to doing more writing behind the scenes since my daily bandwidth has shifted to the zoo.”
Most days Jef cares for animals in the Red Barn, which includes a six-banded armadillo, two Kune Kune pigs, long-horn steer, sheep, and rabbits. “Thanks to all of the amazing trainers I work with, our pigs are trained to sit and hold when you say ‘Dinner Time!’,” Jef explains. “And other trainers in my section work with certain animals like the chickens, who are trained to be program animals and are great around people.” Right now Jef is focused on general animal welfare, making sure animals have the food, water, clean cages, and medicine that they need, and he is learning from more experienced trainers along the way.
Jef jokes that he had to come out to his friends as a zookeeper. “Even my vacation mode is centered around zoo and wildlife encounters—and now I know enough zookeepers that I can ask for behind the scenes tours,” he shared. His most recent travels took him to the San Diego Zoo.
After more than a decade at the Dallas Zoo, Jef still feels like he is just getting started. And certainly don’t ask him to pick a favorite animal! “I think keepers over time build bonds with certain animals, but I can’t pick a favorite,” he admitted. “You just have individual moments with different animals, like when I got to touch an Okapi for the first time—they leave a red residue on your hand and I was convinced I would never wash my hand again.”
Jef wouldn’t trade all of the muddy, sweaty, behind-the-scenes parts of animal care because he can see how much joy the animal interaction at the Dallas Zoo brings to visitors. His career change from media to animal care was the right step at the right time, bringing together his love of animals and his passion for sharing a great story with the community.
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