Rachel Ritchason is the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Curator of Birds and Records. She began her career in 1998 at the San Francisco Zoo, where she was a bird keeper. Rachel joined the Santa Barbara Zoo in 2007, where she went on to become the registrar in 2010 and bird curator in 2012. She holds a B.S in Biology and Captive Wild Animal Behavior from San Francisco State University.
When I saw the photos and stories she posted of various birds under her care at the Santa Barbara Zoo, I knew I needed to feature her on the blog! Her passion and compassion come through so clearly in this interview.
Q: Rachel, your title is Curator of Birds and Records at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Can you tell us what that involves and what you do at the zoo?
Rachel Ritchason: That’s an interesting question! I wear two hats at the Zoo. Wearing the “bird” hat, I supervise the bird team and the birds at the Santa Barbara Zoo. We have seven keepers, 35 species of birds and 160 individuals to care for every day.
The other role I have at the zoo is “registrar” — that’s the records part of my title. I manage the husbandry data and records for the entire Animal Care and Health team, organize animal transfers to and from the Zoo and am responsible for all the permits we need to hold the animals we care for, or for any field conservation work we participate in.
Additionally, I’ve been encouraged to grow within the zoological community. The Santa Barbara Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). As part of that community, I’ve become an accreditation inspector. Within the bird community, I sit on the Steering Committee of several Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) including: Penguin TAG, Coraciiformes TAG and the Ciconiiformes and Phoenicopteriformes TAG. I also manage the Species Survival Plan and Studbook for Rhinoceros Hornbills and the Studbook for Humboldt Penguins. That’s a really long way of saying, I am involved in the AZA community! (I know it’s a lot of terms…. Check out AZA.org for info on those programs!)
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
Rachel Ritchason: When I was in college, I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was going to school in San Francisco, but also working full time in retail. A co-worker worked as an elephant keeper at the San Francisco Zoo. As we got to know each other, I was inspired by her work there, as well as that of the zoo. One day she mentioned there was a volunteer position open with the penguin keeper. I jumped at the opportunity, and launched my career! That woman is still one of my dearest friends!
Q: You’ve been working for zoos, with a focus on birds, for nearly two decades. What is the most rewarding or fascinating thing about your work? Any cool anecdotes you can share about your time as a bird keeper or curator?
Rachel Ritchason: Has it been 20 years?! I don’t feel old enough to have done anything for that long! There are a lot of fun stories, and a lot of heartbreaking moments in working with animals for so long.
The single most rewarding part is seeing the difference we can make in an animal’s life and, here at the zoo, how that extends to the connection that animal makes with our guests.
For example, Lucky the penguin was born with a foot that didn’t develop correctly. Not only did the Santa Barbara Zoo use every possible resource to get Lucky the support he needed to thrive, the entire community rallied around him.
The Deckers Brand shoe company is a local shoemaker, and they made Lucky his own Teva shoe. The shoe not only saved Lucky’s life, it allowed him to act as any other penguin does. He swims, has a nest, a mate, has had a chick and lives a (mostly) normal life. Eight years later, Teva is still working with the Zoo to support Lucky as his ankle joint changes.
Kids come to the exhibit to visit Lucky, they can even FaceTime with him, and they all learn about an animal with a disability that can do anything the other penguins can do.
I’ve seen other animals do this too. Gemina, the giraffe with a crooked neck was a local wonder.
Other animals in zoos all over the world make such impressions on people, and I always hope the animals inspire people to do what they can to care for the earth.
Lucky lives as an example of people’s love and dedication to animals.
Q: What would you say has changed the most in aviculture and our understanding of birds?
Rachel Ritchason: While technology has advanced our understanding and aided us in managing eggs and bird reproduction, the tried and true methods of egg incubation and chick rearing are still being used. The lessons I learned about natural and artificial incubation and chick rearing as a young keeper at the San Francisco Zoo are still applied today.
The science of aviculture has become more important than ever. As species decline in the wild, our ability to work with birds in human care may be the last hope.
For example, the California condor would not exist today without the careful, methodical science and understanding of incubation and rearing (both parent-reared and hand-reared) of these birds. From just 22 individuals to more than 420, with over half flying free in the wild again, this bird is once again fulfilling its vital role in our environment.
Could the Spix macaw be saved with the same efforts?
Q: What would you say is the biggest difference between birds in the wild, wild birds in environments like a zoo, and our companion (pet) birds?
Rachel Ritchason: Birds in the wild (and all animals) spend all of their time surviving, Every behavior is focused on finding the next meal, not being eaten, finding a mate, breeding, etc. When a bird is in human care, at the zoo, or in your home, their needs are fully met with nutritional food, clean water, shelter, veterinary care, and diseases are managed. Within this safe environment, we see new behaviors expressed in the birds.
This can include good and bad behaviors ranging from affection to boredom, and high activity levels to self-injurious behaviors. Our goal, once all basic needs are met, should always be to stimulate our animals – mentally and physically. At the Santa Barbara Zoo, we do this with behavioral enrichment. Our birds are given enrichment to stimulate natural behaviors, always keeping safety in mind!
One other consideration for animals in human care is their extended lives. We see many more geriatric animals than in the wild. Keeping birds comfortable into old age is an important component of lifelong care.
Q: What would you tell someone who was interested in working in a zoo or with wild animals?
Rachel Ritchason: Taking care of animals is a labor of love, and often a lifelong commitment if caring for them at home. Research your options and find the right fit for you! Most people don’t get rich working with animals. Early in my career, I worked two jobs so I could live close to where I work. Keep that in mind as you look at job opportunities. Lastly, get any experience you can! Experience can be dog walking, volunteering at a zoo or veterinary clinic, or taking classes at a teaching zoo.
Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about the work done by the Santa Barbara Zoo, what is it?
Rachel Ritchason: The Santa Barbara Zoo is committed to providing the very best welfare for animals in our care and to connecting people to animals. This goes for animals at the zoo and in the wild. For me, this is the lens I filter decisions through. Will this action better connect people to animals? I hope that a connection here or with a zoo program will inspire people to take action at home.
Q: What can ordinary people who love companion parrots do to support effective parrot conservation efforts around the world? Or to make the lives of our pets better?
Rachel Ritchason: Everyone has the power to support parrot conservation! You can support vetted organizations financially, or through awareness on social media.
I challenge each person to think about where their potential companion bird came from and ask questions of the seller/breeder. Has the bird been brought to the country or bred legally? The illegal pet trade is decimating the world’s bird populations, and extinction likely for some parrots and songbirds if things don’t change. The power is yours to ensure the animals you bring into your home are sourced sustainably!
Once at your home, think about more than the bird’s basic needs. Think about what birds of that species normally do throughout the day in the wild, and try to provide opportunities for your pet bird to express natural behaviors. For example, food doesn’t come in a bowl in the wild… can you provide the opportunity for your parrot to forage for its food?
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A big thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer our questions! I encourage my readers to learn more about how to support the Santa Barbara Zoo’s conservation and education programs and, of course, to take her advice on creating plenty of enrichment opportunities for your companion birds!