If you saw Blount Today graphics director shoveling poop as she lived out a day at her Dream Job, you might be tempted to say, “Oh my! Aim higher!”
In reality, Tessa Bright Wildsmith’s dream job was about as high as it goes -- 15 feet high, as a matter of fact.
Tessa, a graphic artist and director of art and graphics at Blount Today, spent the day with the giraffes at the Knoxville Zoo. Her dream job was to work with exotic animals, and, in true Tessa fashion, if shoveling poop was part of the job, she grabbed a shovel.
Tina Rolen, marketing director for the Knoxville Zoo, set up the opportunity for Tessa to spend the day working at the zoo. For a few hours on Aug. 19, the 29-year-old went to work with David Backus, lead keeper for the Grasslands Africa exhibit.
Backus works with giraffes, meerkats, zebras, Thompson gazelles and waterbucks. On this day, Tessa got to help him as he worked with three giraffes, 27-year-old Miss T, her daughter, 23-year-old Patches, and her daughter, 9-year-old Lucy.
“I wasn’t nervous, but I was excited,” said Tessa. “I had no expectation of the job being a glamorous, fun, pet-the-animals kind of job. Mainly I just wanted to be around the animals and experience it for a day. I love the zoo because of the exotic animals. You can see animals at the zoo you can’t see anywhere else.”
If she could have chosen her spot, Tessa would have spent the day with the gorillas. The place she hoped they would not put her was in the bird house.
“Gorillas fascinate me,” she said, “and I’ve just never been a bird fan.”
Tessa said she always knew her dream job was working with animals in some capacity, but she never wanted to be a vet.
“Dogs and cats are great, and I love them,” Tessa said. “But they can get boring after awhile. I always wanted to work with exotic animals.”
The love of animals -- both exotic and domestic -- is evident in the Maryville home Tessa shares with her husband, Steve Wildsmith, and stepson, Ezra.
“My husband refers to our house as The Ranch. We have Harley, the Doberman -- she’s 7; Jack, the rescue hound dog who is a little over a year old; Claire, the Calico and Hugo, the cat; and part-time we have Scoop, the Blount Today office cat who comes home with me at night. And then there’s the Chinese Water Dragon, Kate.”
Tessa said all their animals except Harley and Scoop are named after characters from the television show “Lost.”
When Tessa arrived at the zoo, Tina Rolen took her to meet Backus, who was cleaning a pond on the edge of the grasslands enclosure. Backus, a Florida native, grew up wanting to work with animals. He interned at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and later worked at Busch Gardens and Sea World in Orlando before he came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee School of Veterinarian Medicine.
While many who work in zoos have degrees in zoology, psychology or anthropology, Backus said he never went back and finished school after he got a job at the zoo.
“I moved here for college, but I’m one of the few who doesn’t have a college degree,” he said. “I applied at the zoo, and just happened to luck out. A lot of people will tell you it’s about being in the right place at the right time. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This is my dream job.”
The first thing Backus and Tessa did was sweep the barn of golf-ball sized manure the giraffes left throughout their stalls. Then they sanitized the floors with bleach and water before they pushed the water and waste into drains.
“It’s not a glamorous part of the job, but you know what you’re signing up for,” Backus said.
Tessa told Backus she enjoyed the work, in part because she likes to clean. “It wasn’t bad,” she said. “Surprisingly, giraffe poop isn’t very big, not what you would expect. It’s not much worse than what Jack, my dog, leaves behind. Had I been with elephants, and they made me grab a pooper-scooper, it might have been a different a story.”
Tessa said something else she learned under Backus’ tutelage was that giraffes see in color, and that they can be very picky if their routines are altered.
“David told me about how one time the keepers accidentally mixed up where they placed the colored water bowls in the barn. The giraffes saw that the blue bowl was out-of-place, and they wouldn’t come into the barn,” Tessa said. “They’re finicky. If something is out of place, they’re unhappy, and they show their displeasure.”
Tessa got to climb up into the second floor of the barn where she helped Backus clean food containers. “We’ll lift about eight hay bales up here a week,” he said. “Unless you’ve done it before, there’s a lot of heavy lifting, and you’re going to build muscles pretty quickly.”
Backus said the giraffes eat alfalfa hay, grain pellets and leaves. “They will eat a 50 pound bag of grain pellets and a half a bale of alfalfa hay a day. They also get a 5-gallon bucket of produce -- such as oranges and lettuce,” he said.
The keeper said it takes an hour and half to clean the barn and enclosure. The rest of the 8-hour day is spent training, doing enrichment exercises with the animals and paperwork. With training and enrichment, the keepers train the animals to do “tricks,” like present an ear or paw or walk into a medical chute for check ups, he said.
Backus said the time spent on enrichment activities often includes using food hidden in Puzzle Feeders to get the animal’s minds to thinking. “It gets them to think, and they get mentally stimulated,” he said. “We try to do stuff that emulates what they do in the wild, and it helps them think.”
Backus said the giraffes sleep between two and three hours a day, usually in 5 to 20 minute nap intervals. And while giraffes are docile, they do have the power to hurt an enemy, he said.
“They can kick in any directions. While horses can only kick behind them, giraffes can kick in all four directions,” he said.
After cleaning up after the giraffes, Tessa got to experience the cleaner part of the job with an encounter with the animals. She cut limbs with leaves to feed the giraffes. Tessa stood on a special platform that is built to look like a ledge on a fiberglass “rock” outcropping. Leaf-covered limbs enabled Backus and Tessa to lure 9-year-old, Lucy, over for a snack.
“It was great,” Tessa said. “There was only one giraffe who was friendly enough to eat from your hand -- Lucy. They’re amazing creatures, and they are so big. At one point. Lucy took off running, and to watch them run with all four feet coming off the ground, it was amazing. They are massive animals, but they are so graceful and move so smoothly.”
Backus said the job at the zoo mixes his love of interacting with the public and his love of animals. Sharing with visitors, he said, is also gratifying. “I enjoy interacting with the public, and I enjoy talking to people and educating people, but I also enjoy interacting with the animals.”
Tessa said the zookeepers earned her respect.
“It is absolutely still my dream job even after I cleaned the barn,” she said. “The tough part was the humidity. I don’t know how the keepers do it day-in and day-out when it’s 100 degrees. The barns aren’t air-conditioned. Even though you’re under a roof, it is hot.”
Tessa said it was evident Backus and the others at the Knoxville Zoo were working their dream jobs. “They’re passionate about what they do. It is not just, ‘Here’s some food and water for the animals.’ They truly put a lot of effort into working with the animals, helping keep them stimulated and working to give them as close to a natural environment as they can replicate. The keepers look after them physically, but also mentally,” she said.
Tessa said she was impressed with the Knoxville Zoo. “They’re building a new lion courtyard and moving things around to try and make it even better,” she said. “It seems like every time I go, they’re changing things around trying to improve the habitat for the animals. I was impressed with that.”
Tessa said she learned the Knoxville Zoo has the second largest Red Panda breeding program in the world. “The survival rate in the wild is really low and to know you’ve helped the species along would be very rewarding,” she said.
Tessa said that like many folks, the roots of her dream job are in her past.
“I grew up on a farm surrounded by cows, chickens, pigs, horses and dogs. I have been animal-crazy my entire life,” she said. “Even in high school, I thought about what I’d want to do forever, and working with animals always interested me, but I was young and more interested in having fun and didn’t follow that path.
“I’m very happy where I ended up,” she said, “but if I had to do it over, that’s what I would do.”
While giving Lucy leaves for a treat, Tessa got a close look at the giraffe’s long tongue. “It’s black and sticky, like a cat’s,” she said.
No goodbye kiss from Lucy, but if Lucy ever needs a home, the Wildsmith’s would probably start building an enclosure.
Might have to change her name to “Libby,” however. There was no Lucy on “Lost.”
What is your dream job? Is it something that Blount Today can make happen for you, for a day, and then share with our readers? Let us know. Email or call Lance Coleman at colemanl@BlountToday.com or 865-981-9106. We will take a look at the responses and see if they are within our capabilities.