I first heard about the American Association of Zookeeper’s conference/teaching program in Guadalajara when I was living in Madrid. I was getting ready to move back to the US and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of going back to my old life after getting accustomed to life in Madrid. One of my friends and past coworkers, Chelsea, forwarded me an email about the conference and how they were looking for Spanish speakers to present about a variety of animal care topics.
My first thought? That’s way over my head! I had never presented at a conference, much less in Spanish. But then I thought, how cool would it be if I did? It could be a big deal for me personally, professionally, and even for the wolf center as a way to network, raise awareness for what we do, and share our experiences with others.
So, I started to seriously consider going. I asked a few of my closest friends and family members what they thought and they all encouraged me to go for it. I was worried about asking for time to travel right after getting back from a 1 and 1/2 year “sabbatical”, but I figured it was worth at least asking.
Getting back to work in September was a whirlwind. There was a lot to do, catch up on, and get reacquainted with. So I was pleasantly surprised when my boss agreed to send me off to the zookeeping conference in Guadalajara. I decided to present on how we manage our Mexican gray wolves.
I was pretty confident in my Spanish speaking ability, as I had been getting non stop practice for the past year. Granted, Spanish in Spain is slightly different than in Mexico, but not different enough to matter too much. There were a few choice words that I had to really be careful with (“coger” = “to catch” in Spain, and the f-bomb in Mexico), but I knew I’d survive.
This was my first real business trip, not counting wolf transfers! I flew with a couple of zookeepers from the San Diego Zoo from Tijuana to Guadalajara. By the way, that is really the way to go if you’re traveling from San Diego. Flights out of the Tijuana airport to other parts of Mexico are so much cheaper than out of San Diego, and it’s a breeze to get to the airport. You enter the airport on the US side of the border, and cross inside the airport! My round trip flights cost $100, and it would have been $300 going out of San Diego.
I met so many amazing zookeepers on this trip, from both the US and Mexico. The first evening that we got there, we went to the aquarium (Aquario Michin) and joined others that had been there for a few days for the Mexican Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Talk about a fancy backdrop for a dinner!
We stayed in the historical city center of Guadalajara, which has the look and feel of a European city. One big difference though were the prices! Food and drinks were cheap, as were the uber rides around town.
The conference itself was great! The presentations ranged from nutrition to handling, training, vet care, and documentation. Some were in English (with Spanish interpreters) and some were in Spanish. I helped with a workshop on making bottle nipples for animals that weren’t getting sufficient care or milk from their mothers. There was also a workshop on egg incubation, and one on bird training.
My presentation was on the last day, and I was pretty nervous. It started out a bit rough because a few slides in, I realized that we had opened the wrong version of the powerpoint (lesson learned for next time: have only one version!). Then, there was an issue with my videos playing. But once I got all that worked out, I think it went well, and I really enjoyed talking about what I do. Who would have thought that I would be there, talking about how we capture wolves, in Spanish, at the first conference ever for zookeepers in Mexico?
Another highlight of the conference was getting a tour of the Guadalajara Zoo, which is just amazing. Their orangutan exhibit was especially enjoyable to see, as they had many different posts for the orangutans to climb up. They were all connected, so the animals could walk around a large part of the zoo and look down on guests. They also had a “safari” where we fed giraffes. For those who don’t know, giraffes are one of my favorite animals. If I weren’t working with wolves, I’d be working with giraffes (okay, or sea turtles. There are too many animals to choose from).
I got to try some authentic Mexican food, including two Guadalajaran specialties: la torta ahogada (sandwich) and a soup called pozole.
But my favorite food that I tried in Guadalajara was the street tacos. On the last night of the conference, a bunch of us met on the rooftop terrace of our hotel. Zookeepers from both countries came, and it was really cool to have conversations going on in English and Spanish as we shared stories about our animal care journeys. After drinking and snacking a bit, a few of us decided to go grab some tacos. The street tacos in Mexico are legit. They had every kind of taco you could imagine. And by that, I mean every body part of a cow. The cheek, tongue, stomach, eye…I’m adventurous but I couldn’t bring myself to try the eye. I did try cheek and tongue though! They were very good. I was weary about getting sick, but my stomach of steel handled the tacos fine.
We also checked out a local bar near the historic plaza.
On one night of the trip, I got a chance to meet up with two friends from Mexico who I met through Diego. We all lived together in Madrid for a while. Anyway, we went to a restaurant in Guadalajara together and it was so good to see them. They took me to a part of the city where the locals go; somewhere I would not have seen if it weren’t for them. I really think that having a local to show you around a new place is an amazing opportunity that you should never pass up!
Overall, the conference was a success. It was a good opportunity to share ideas, knowledge, and meet other professionals in the field.
Since then, I’m proud to say that I’ve joined the International Outreach Committee of the AAZK–the committee in charge of putting on these teaching programs. I’m excited to be more involved in the process! Our goal is to provide educational and mentorship resources to the international community, starting with Latin America.
Now, almost eight months later, it’s time to prepare for the next teaching program in Mexico. I’m hoping to go to the one in November, which will take place in Durango!
Have you ever presented at a conference? Or traveled internationally to attend one?