In anticipation of the Great Escapes Art Auction, hosted by the American Association of Zoo Keepers-Little Rock Chapter, Kate Barszczowski considers the Little Rock Zoo’s role in the community as a resource for conservation + education.
By Barrett Gay | Photography by Caleb Shane | Hair by Jessica Johnson with Face Your Day Salon | Makeup by Emily Crawford with Face Your Day Salon | Shot on location at the Little Rock Zoo
Kate Barszczowski spends most of her day with lions and tigers and sometimes even bears – oh my! As a carnivore keeper at the Little Rock Zoo, Kate ensures the welfare of – you guessed it – carnivores, primarily the big cats. She notes her favorite resident of the zoo, a melanistic (black) jaguar named Cactus Jack, has a mischievous disposition and a tendency to misbehave whenever she’s not around to keep an eye on him.
Kate realized at an early age that her career would consist of working with animals. The only question was, in what capacity? At the encouragement of a college professor, she pursued zoo internship opportunities across the country. Over the next few years, those internships offered a wealth of experience, working like puzzle pieces to lead to her specialty with carnivores. “I get to help them live a good life, so I find that really rewarding.” As she says, “half these animals eat better than I do.”
The zoo’s mission spans beyond providing optimal quality of life for the residents. The Little Rock Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, an independent accrediting organization that holds zoos and aquariums across the globe to the highest standards of animal care, conservation support and conservation education for visitors. Only about 10 percent of the nearly 3,000 USDA-licensed wildlife exhibitors in America achieve this status.
“One of the biggest reasons we have zoos, especially accredited zoos by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is because the animals serve as ambassadors to their species in the wild,” Little Rock Zoo Director Susan Altrui explains. “There’s something about seeing an animal up close and personal that’s very different from seeing an animal on TV or reading about it in a book. You are moved by it, you are persuaded to do something – there’s a call to action. And that’s the function that zoos serve.” The zoo recently welcomed two female lions to the Little Rock Zoo family. Susan notes, “The two girls were brought here on the recommendation of the Association of Zoo & Aquariums Species Survival Plan that makes recommendations for endangered and threatened animals. We completed renovations to accommodate the sisters, Inara and Saphira.” The updated exhibit features training windows where guests can see the keepers interact with the lions.
Kate notes that the zoo also encourages staff to pursue conservation and educational opportunities – making them more knowledgeable and effective keepers. Last year, she participated in a program called The Realm of the Tiger with MYCAT – the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers. As part of the program, her team visited the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor in Malaysia, where poaching activity is high, and dismantled traps. “It was awe-inspiring to be somewhere like that and to participate in something you feel so passionately about.”
Back at the zoo, Kate enthusiastically serves in a variety of leadership positions including president of the American Association of Zoo Keepers-Little Rock Chapter and internship coordinator. Kate helped establish the internship program and has enjoyed watching it develop. “My internship experience meant so much to me that I think it’s really important we pass on our passion and knowledge to the next generation,” she says.
As president of the AAZK-Little Rock Chapter, Kate is looking forward to the Great Escapes Art Auction. Each year, patrons and friends of the zoo can purchase unique art painted by its creative creatures, perfect for holiday gifts. Proceeds support the chapter’s conservation projects and continued keeper education. The process of making the art also serves as a fun + constructive training time for the animals. “It’s a very interesting way to bridge animals and art,” Susan notes. “If you’re interested in art and animals, then this is definitely the event for you.”