The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zookeeping isn’t common in the Black community. This Black zookeeper wants to change that.

Craig Saffoe is the curator of large carnivores at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Craig Saffoe is the curator of large carnivores at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Craig Saffoe was at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s big-cats exhibit when he saw the man.

“Out bounds this Black guy, in a zoo uniform,” Saffoe said. “He had this walk, like the coolest walk you’ve ever seen. And I think, ‘Ah, that’s cool, they let their volunteers come in.’ ”

Then he realized the man wasn’t a volunteer.

“He had his training buoy, his target stick, his meat pouch,” Saffoe said, and he realized: “Oh, my God, he’s the keeper.”

The man didn’t fit the profile of who most zookeepers in America are: White and female.

“I was mortified that I said that,” Saffoe said. Because, like the man in Fresno, Calif., he was watching during a conference in 2018, Saffoe, too, is a Black zookeeper.

Saffoe, 47, is the curator of large carnivores at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C. (who just had a rough month helping nurse the zoo’s biggest cats back to health after they caught covid-19, probably from an asymptomatic but contagious human).

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And for decades, he has often been one of the few — if not the only — zookeeper of color in the room (er, cage).

Even as his responsibility and prestige in the field grew, his Black friends would dismiss his work as “White people stuff” — and indeed, the field is about 74 percent White.

When he was at work at the National Zoo, where he’s been for more than 25 years, people who didn’t know him often assumed — as Saffoe did with the Black zookeeper in Fresno — that he’s a volunteer, or even a janitor.

The same thing happened to Jordan Veasley, an animal keeper at Cougar Mountain Zoo in Washington state, who said he gets asked “if I’m a janitor or if I clean the bathrooms” when he’s walking around the zoo.

Veasley, 32, whose social media posts as Jungle Jordan are wildly popular, finally tackled his unicorn status in an emotional viral video where he starts by saying, “I. Am. A Black zookeeper . . . there’s two words there — Black and zookeeper. Both probably words you’ve never heard combined together.”

Zookeeping has been an uncommon profession in the Black community. Saffoe said that as a little boy growing up in North Carolina, he confounded his parents when all he wanted to do was read about animals, talk about animals and work with animals.

A veterinarian took him under his wing to come watch a surgery, which led to him enrolling in veterinary school. But it soon became clear that animal behavior — not animal medicine — was his true love.

He applied for an internship at the National Zoo and received a call from John Seidensticker, who was the big-cat specialist at the zoo and one of the authors of “Great Cats,” a book Saffoe had read so many times he knew it word for word. Saffoe came to D.C. and has been here since, living out his boyhood dream.

There were some rough patches, such as when Ollie the bobcat escaped, or these past few weeks, when he had to prepare his staff for the idea that one of the beloved lions was near death. And though he was always aware of his minority status, he didn’t dwell on it.

The ballad of Ollie the Bobcat. We’re all Ollie.

“I have never experienced, myself, direct, overt racism,” Saffoe told me, as we walked among the exhibits one day last month.

“I had a lot of White people helping me, pushing me along,” he said.

But when he talked to that Fresno zookeeper, he realized all the times he felt alone, when he was not taken seriously and mistaken for a janitor. And he knew there were Black kids like him out there, wondering if they had a place in the world of zookeeping.

“It was one of the best conversations I’ve had in my career,” he said.

And they realized there had to be others like them. “I told him, ‘You’re a Black guy in Fresno. I’m a Black guy in D.C. Wouldn’t it be groovy if we had a group for people like us?”

That was the beginning of the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals, or AMZAP.

This idea started forming around the time that zoos closed down for the pandemic, and without visitors and classes, Saffoe had time to start building his group and expand it to include all people of color in the field.

While many of the zookeepers in AMZAP bond over the way they’ve been misunderstood within their profession and their culture, one zookeeper joined the group to make sure the importance of animals in her culture is secured.

Carolyn Hornberger, 31, is part Native American, with a heritage linked to the Oneida tribe. And while she works with the great apes at the National Zoo in D.C., she was frustrated that the importance of animal stories in Native American culture weren’t represented in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. So now she’s working on exhibits about the role of animals in some tribes’ legends, lore and tradition to include in the museum.

Saffoe’s group of more than 300 members is growing, with a Hmong American aquarist from California, a British Indian veterinarian from Ohio and a Mexican American aviary keeper from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida recently joining. Outreach and education are his primary goals.

“I would love for my Black community to see me in this role,” he said. “I would love to go to a school that has a population of Black students, find the Black nerd who loves animals and tell him, ‘I love animals, like you. And there’s a place for you.’ ”

Twitter: @petulad

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