By Deanna Atkinson McGill | Photography by Sarah Oden | Hair & Makeup by Jax Sexton with Red Beauty Lounge | Shot on location at the Little Rock Zoo with Pesos the Catalina Macaw
It was no surprise to family and friends when Nicole Darland landed her dream job at the Little Rock Zoo. Nicole reminisces, “At one point in high school I had a guinea pig, a dove, two rats and three dogs. God bless my mother for dealing with all that.” Her devotion to the birds and other animals she cares for at the zoo is undeniable. As president of the American Association of Zookeepers – Little Rock Chapter, Nicole will welcome guests to Great Escapes for an evening of distinctive artwork and wild shopping.
Throughout her childhood, Nicole naturally presumed the only way to help and be with animals was to become a veterinarian. But as she learned more about zoology and related opportunities, she realized it was a career she had to pursue. “My inspiration to become a zookeeper is because of my 12th grade English teacher and an assignment.” At her mother’s suggestion in relation to the project, Nicole shadowed the large hoofstock (ruminants and members of the horse family) and big cat keepers at the zoo. One of the handlers shared influential advice – take any job at the zoo and then move between departments based on personal interests. That advice led Nicole to an opening at the Little Rock Zoo Café Africa. She continued her relentless pursuit to be a zookeeper and four months later accepted the seasonal lorikeet landing position. As a result of her cross-training in the bird department, she was the ideal candidate for bird keeper.
Though her goal had always been working with big cats she altered her plans after meeting Cody the warthog and two red river hogs – Passion Flower and Harry. “I fell head over heels in love.” Now she is the bird and small hoofstock keeper at the zoo where she trains and cares for the warthogs, exhibit birds, kudu, yellow-backed duiker as well as occasional work with the zebras, anteaters, dik dik and somali wild ass. “When Cody passed away at the age of 15 it was the hardest day of my job. Even though it has been two years, I have a photo of him in my car,” Nicole shares.
Nicole serves as president of American Association of Zookeepers – Little Rock Chapter, an organization that supports zookeepers and conservation with continued educational opportunities. Each year, Great Escapes presents creations by animals from the Little Rock Zoo including extraordinary ornaments and artwork. Wild shopping complemented with light snacks and drinks as well as keepers to answer all critter-related questions make for a fun and informative evening. Through fundraising events, the AAZK provides support for conservation, zoo assistance and additional resources for zookeepers. Nicole encourages, “The more we know, the better keepers we can be and do our best work for our animal’s best life.”