Michael Madeja, a senior biological anthropology major, doesn’t just go to the zoo to see exotic animals. It’s where he found his career aspirations.
His interest in animals was sparked after writing a paper on primate violence for Anthropological Approach, which encouraged him to learn more about primates, Madeja said. The honors student then registered for an elective class called Primate Behaviors after switching his major from pre-med.
“I really enjoyed everything about it, from the videos we got to watch to studying morphology, and even to studying the phylogeny,” Madeja said. “Primates can teach humans a lot, like medicine, evolution, natural history, conservation. Primates are really charismatic.”
As part of the curriculum for Primate Behaviors, Madeja was required to complete several tasks at the Philadelphia Zoo, including observing animals. The class focused on the nature of primate families and behaviors, which could explain human behavior.
Scott Kirkland, the class’ teaching assistant, said he noticed the particular interest Madeja took in Primate Behaviors.
“He was always interested and engaged in what was happening during the labs,” Kirkland said. “With 70 students in a class, it can be difficult to stand out, but he did.”
Recently, Madeja had an internship at the Philadelphia Zoo, which he learned about from a friend who had previously interned there.
“I went to the expo and instantly fell in love,” Madeja said with a laugh. “One of the heads in the public programs department said a cheesy animal joke and I was hooked.”
During his time at the zoo, Madeja said he felt at home as he developed relationships with the animals, interns and employees. He said he knew he was in the right place by observing how passionate the workers are about their jobs and caring for the animals.
“The Philadelphia Zoo is full of the most supportive, friendly, informed people,” Madeja said. “The supervisors and staff members are so full of passion for what they do that you can’t help but feel inspired.”
Madeja spent at least three days a week at the internship. Alongside fellow interns, he spent most of his time with the goats in the KidZooU section but also cared for three baby Galapagos tortoises.
He said after the experiences he had there, he believes he’ll have lasting relationships with both the interns and the animals. He described the animals as having individual personalities, recalling specific creatures he worked with.
“I could tell you anecdotes about some, bare minimum facts about others, life stories for another couple and everything in between,” Madeja said. “All of them have their own personalities and you feel like you get to know them.”
As an avenue to channel his passion for animals and their histories, Madeja said he is interested in working at a museum after graduation. This career will allow him to teach people things about animals, natural history and conservation, knowledge of which he gained during his zoo internship, he said.
His experience from the time he spent interning is something he said he would like to pass along.
“The education aspect has always been in my life too, but I was just kind of afraid to approach it because of the formality,” Madeja said.
After his interning experience, the intimidation factor is gone. Madeja said he plans to attend graduate school for museum studies with a concentration in education.
“I found myself at the zoo and I haven’t looked back,” Madeja said.
Karlina Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.