This month celebrates zoos and aquariums and the impact they not only have on the animals that live there, but also the people who come to visit and the people who work there. Who better to interview than Corina Newsome aka @hood_naturalist!
Recently transitioning from her career as a zookeeper, Corina Newsome is currently a graduate biology student at Georgia Southern University, specializing in avian conservation. Corina earned her B.A. in Zoo and Wildlife Biology from Malone University (OH) in 2015 and, since graduating, has founded several programs to encourage high school students of underrepresented ethnic and socioeconomic groups in wildlife biology to consider careers in wildlife conservation. Corina grew up in downtown Philadelphia and has always maintained a desire to participate in, and advocate for, the protection of wildlife and the natural world, and encourage minorities in the U.S. to explore the great outdoors.
It is not uncommon for animal lovers to want to work at an aquarium or zoo. Where did you work, what led you towards that career choice and how did you enjoy it?
I started my zoo career as an education intern at the Philadelphia Zoo (my hometown zoo, and the first zoo in the U.S.). I originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but after 5 years of volunteering as a veterinary assistant, I passed out during a routine surgery. I knew my plans had to change! A friend reached out and told me to try volunteering at the Philadelphia zoo (my hometown zoo, and the first zoo in the U.S.). I ended up taking their advice, and started my zoo career as an education intern the summer before I left for college.
During my college career at Malone University, I worked in our on-grounds animal facility and continued interning at Philadelphia Zoo during the summer. After graduating college, I got my first job as a part-time animal keeper and member of the show staff at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I cared for the ambassador animals, which included a diversity of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and, best of all, BIRDS! After almost a year in that position, I accepted a full-time job at the Nashville Zoo, where I stayed for the past 3 ½ years.
I have never loved a job more than I loved zookeeping. Caring for and gaining the trust of such a wide diversity of wildlife is an honor. But what made the job even more incredible is that I got to inspire the general public to share my fascination and appreciation for wildlife. Truly the best of both worlds!
I'm sure your position had multiple responsibilities daily, but what stood out as your favorite thing to do within that role?
One of the most fun and dynamic parts of my job was animal training. Healthy training requires that there be strong trust between the trainer and the animal being trained. I had the opportunity to train animals for 2 main purposes: 1. for demonstrating their natural behaviors in education programs, and 2. for their care (this is called behavioral husbandry).
For education programs, I have trained birds (e.g. falcon and owl) to fly to audience members, binturongs and a porcupine to climb across the stage for our shows, and a rehabilitated, non-releasable (and quite scared) screech owl to sit calmly on a glove. For behavioral husbandry, I have trained such behaviors as voluntary beak trim (to keep their beaks on good shape) for a rehabilitated, non-releasable American Crow, voluntary nail trims for a binturong, and voluntary weighing for a kestrel to voluntarily weigh himself. In addition to these behaviors, all of the keepers participate in the training of all of our animals, as more often than not, we all need multiple people to help with training sessions.
You're now a graduate student at Georgia Southern University. What prompted you to make the transition from a job you enjoyed back into academia?
While zookeeping was the most fun and exciting job I have ever done, I’ve always longed to contribute to wildlife conservation in the realm of research. In order to make that happen, graduate school was a must for me! Birds have always been my favorite animal group, so I knew I wanted to conduct avian research. My Master’s research is focusing on the conservation of a bird called the MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow, which lives in Georgia’s coastal marshes.
Having been a zoo professional, how does that experience affect the way you see your work today as a scientist?
Beyond caring for the animals that live at the zoo, zoos both fund and participate in wildlife research as well. This maximizes their contribution to saving the species in their care on a daily basis. Having worked at a zoo and now in research, I have gained a well-rounded understanding of the multifaceted nature of wildlife conservation. Not only does it involve initiatives like strategically breeding species at risk for extinction, providing excellent care at zoological facilities, and educating the public, it also involves efforts that people rarely see. Researchers are tirelessly trying to understand the ways in which humans impact wildlife, the most important threats to their survival, and what we must do to prevent losing the earth’s biodiversity.
One of the key missions of zoos and aquariums is to educate the public about wildlife and conservation. It seems like the mission has stayed with you from your active involvement in science communication on Twitter and Instagram. How did you get started educating people on those platforms?
Being active on social media just kind of… happened. I knew that most of my family and friends were not exposed to wildlife (native or from around the world), so I simply wanted to share what I’d learned, and the species with which I was working, with all of them. It eventually became apparent that people beyond my immediate circle were interested in the information I was sharing, and my audience gradually broadened.
Those folks familiar with you might remember that you recently put out a very popular remix of Offset and Cardi B’s song “Clout” about bird counts. What inspired you to take this creative route of engaging people with birding through pop culture?
A friend and colleague of mine at Georgia Southern Biology, Antarius McClain, is a music producer and artist. One night, after becoming memorizing cardi B’s entire verse, I thought of a few funny bird-related alternative lyrics. Antarius and I texted each other back and forth with these remixed lines until we had remixed the whole verse! Within 24 hours, we recorded the short track in his living room and filmed a little video at a local state park (George L. Smith) in southern Georgia. It took off from there! The entire time we kept asking ourselves “What on earth are we doing??” “Why are we doing this?” We were certainly surprised that it was so well received.
I talk often about the importance of diversity in the fields within wildlife conservation. As a Black woman, I have lived and observed experiences that remind me of how crucial it is that we address the systems in wildlife conservation, both in the U.S. and abroad, that disenfranchise people of the global majority (black and brown people) and hinder our access to natural spaces. Additionally, I want to show people who grew up like me, poor, in the city, often divorced from the natural world, that this space is ours. We belong in it. We depend on it. Seeing someone who looks like you in spaces where there haven’t been many makes such a tangible impact on what you think you can accomplish, on what you think is possible for your life.
I want to encourage people with privilege and power in the realm of wildlife conservation to address and confront the injustices woven into the fabric of “business as usual.” These injustices run deep and wide, and have far reaching impacts for people like me. We need all hands on deck in this effort; both for the sake of wildlife and the welfare of humankind.