"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened." – Anatole France
It’s a zoo out there, and Sharleen Khan wouldn’t have it any other way. Khan is a zookeeper at the Emperor Valley Zoo, TT’s official animal enclosure, nestled next to the Botanical Gardens at the base of Lady Chancellor Hill in Port of Spain.
Khan, who has 12 years' hands-on experience working with and promoting wildlife conservation, has been gaining attention and quite a following on social media in videos posted by the zoo, in which she raises awareness about wildlife conservation.
“The videos are part of the zoo’s education programme. It is also geared towards enlightening the public about the plight some animals face and to showcase local wildlife,” she told WMN.
Khan has been fascinated by animals since childhood. She told WMN she helped take care of a variety of animals at her home in Debe, south Trinidad – among them dogs, rabbits, fish and even a pet crab named Sparky given to her by her father. She would also read the Childcraft Encyclopaedia Animal Kingdom volumes cover to cover. So it really was no surprise that she would eventually make a career of caring for animals – more specifically, wild animals.
“I believe my inspiration for working with wildlife stemmed from being exposed to these animals from a young age. As a child my mother took me to the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Sea World and Toronto Zoo.
“I was fascinated by seeing real-life tigers, elephants, beluga whales, killer whales, Komodo dragons, penguins, etc,” she said.“My childhood dream was always growing up to work with, care for and save animals.”
And that dream has come true.
She described what a typical day for her looks like:
“My day starts with a walk around the entire zoo checking on all the animals – observation checks. Because many of the animals and I have developed a close bond, during my walk on mornings I call their names, they know my voice, and they all come out to excitedly greet or acknowledge me.”
This, she said, is one of the best parts of her day. Then she and her colleagues provide care for orphaned or injured wildlife, such as the orphaned baby agouti Pixie.
“During the morning period, I would also practise conditioning exercises with animals including giraffes, the tigers, mandrill and zebra.”
By the time the zoo is open to visitors (pre-covid19), she would be ready to co-ordinate the daily education programme by greeting guests with animal encounters (meeting and learning about wildlife up close), feeding the giraffes and llamas with visitors and conducting animal talks (telling families all about animals).
“On many days, I carry out zoo tours with schools, teaching students about animals and their importance. On some days I also visit schools with our animal ambassadors throughout Trinidad to teach children and local animals.”
And at the end of the day, her work is still not done, sometimes not even when she gets home.
“On late evenings, before I leave for the day, I walk around the entire zoo for one last check-up of the animals and to say goodbye to my 'kids.' Sometimes I also look after orphaned baby animals literally all day, such as Pixie, who goes home with me for round-the-clock care at this early stage.
“My job is a physically active one and many days I am extremely tired at the end of a day, but I won't have it any other way.
She said one of the best parts of her job is being able to work with children and students every day, enlightening them about animals and their importance in their environment.
"Seeing the fascination on a child’s face when I show them an animal up close is priceless!”
Their fascination reminds Khan of her own childhood and two special memories that stand out for her: seeing a rhinoceros for the first time at the Bronx Zoo in New York, and encountering Crocy, the Emperor Valley Zoo’s large American crocodile, she was nine.
"I stood staring and admiring for a long time at the armour-like skin on this large animal,” she said of the rhino.
She had the same feeling when she saw Crocy.
“I stood staring at how large in size he was!”
As fate would have it, she was able to meet her childhood “love” when she started working at the zoo ten years ago.
“Now, all grown up, I was honoured to work at the zoo helping care for Crocy,” who died a few years later.
Her adult experiences have been just as impressive.
“I had the outstanding opportunity to undergo a training attachment in 2015 at the Australia Zoo, home of one of my role models in my field, the late (conservationist and wild life expert) Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter! This was surely unforgettable – learning about giraffe care, saltwater crocodiles, etc.”
And there were the times when she travelled, just for fun, to see animals in their natural habitats.
“In 2018 I went whale-watching in Puget Sound off Seattle to see one of my favourite wild animals, the killer whales or orcas. I also saw a humpback whale which came straight up to our boat! That was one the things on my to-do list while on this planet and it was a priceless experience for me.
“I also went diving in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, to see marine life, including sea turtles.”
She does have one regret though, that there is one travel wish that can never be fulfilled.
“I wish I could be able to travel back in time to the age of the dinosaurs to see them in real life. My prize possession is a dinosaur bone fossil which was gifted to me during my travels.”
So does she have a favourite animal?
“After extreme consideration, I have to say I do love killer whales and tigers. With domestic animals, dogs always have my heart as well,” Khan, the owner of two chihuahuas, Kiwi and Strawberry, disclosed.
The youngest of three children, Khan, also has an impressive resume, She holds a BSc in environmental and natural resources management and agricultural science from UWI, St Augustine; is the zoological officer with the Zoological Society of TT Inc; a member of the Manatee Conservation Trust; was an honorary game warden; has served as a Rotarian with the Rotary Club of San Juan; was environmental education officer at the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust; and was among 20 individuals selected from the wider Caribbean region to undergo a Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) programme (2014-2016) for upcoming wildlife leaders.
“I’ve had the opportunity to undergo several training attachments at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, Florida, Smithsonian National Zoo, Washington, Guyana Zoo, National Aquarium, Baltimore, Australia Zoo and most recently, the world-famous San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
“I also participated in several animal-training exercises at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Annual Conference 2013, 2014 and 2015 hosted by Kansas City Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Sea World, Orlando and Utah’s Hogle Zoo.”
But the former Naparima Girls’ High School student is not one to hoard her knowledge and experience. She uses every opportunity she can to educate others, especially children and young people, on wildlife conservation. She writes a column, Sharleen’s Wildlife, in a local newspaper, is invited to lecture at her alma mater on environmental science and wildlife conservation from time to time, and was selected to speak to in commemoration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020 to students of an all-female secondary school.
Khan also keeps current with changes through online studies in zoo animal husbandry.
“I plan to further my career by continued work with the endangered species such as the Bengal tiger and conservation and protection of wild animals in their natural habitats, including the scarlet ibis.
“My goal is to make a difference in the lives of wild animals…I hope to inspire at least one person, one child, to care for and respect wildlife.”