Zoonique

Christopher Watkinson

Decatur High School teacher transitions into working with almost every type of animal in the zoo to teaching. Here he puts eye drops in sea lion Maggie’s eye.

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He stands at 42 inches, weighs in at about 550 pounds, a fierce predator and the king of the jungle. The lion, with its thick mane and deep brown eyes, is an extremely dangerous and ferocious animal. If not handled properly, an encounter with this creature could end fatally.

Decatur teacher Christopher Watkinson worked in the Pittsburgh Zoo and Zoo Atlanta. He has worked with everything from big cats to marine mammals, even rhinos, training with almost all zoo animals except primates. Dealing with animals that are as smart as 12 year olds and ten times stronger is something Watkinson did not want to do.

Watkinson’s childhood dream was to be a zookeeper. He went to college intending to be a doctor; two weeks in he changed his mind.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be. Junior year they try and make you decide and you have to tell them what you want to do with the rest of your life,” Watkinson said. “I had no idea so I decided I’d actually go after my childhood dream and become a zookeeper.”

After countless emails sent to the Pittsburgh Zoo, he got an interview for the education department. Watkinson got the job, beating out seven other people, “and from there I just moved on up.”

Watkinson’s favorite animal in Atlanta were the ground horn bells. “I love them best because one, they were characters but two I taught them how to paint,” Watkinson said.

In Pittsburgh his favorites were the rhinos because he taught them how to walk backwards and the Amur leopard. “They were beautiful,” Watkinson said.

Working at the zoo and having experiences in being a zookeeper translated wonderfully for his next profession, teaching.

“What we hate to admit is that what we call it when we work with animals, training, is really no different than when you work with people, except we call it teaching,” Watkinson said.

While working in the zoo, he developed many skills that translate into working well with people.

“You learn a lot of nonverbal. You can’t talk to a rhino, you have to learn and figure things out from a different perspective, think ‘how can I communicate this differently,’” Watkinson said.

Zoo life was difficult. Watkinson’s work schedule was hectic. It was hard for him to hang out with friends and he never got holidays off.

“The animals don’t realize its Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Watkinson said.

Moving into teaching made it easier for him to hang out with friends and spend the holidays with family.

But transitioning into teaching kids posed more challenges than teaching animals.

“Animals are easier 100 percent. Animals are people pleasers, they are motivated to do things whereas children, not always so much,” Watkinson said. “We can’t motivate [students] as easily and animals don’t talk back.

Teacher Sean DeWeese agrees that animals are easier to work with than animals.

“I have four dogs and as soon as I tell them to do something, they do it,” he said.

Watkinson plans to eventually work at the zoo over the summer. He still holds a deep emotional connection with the animals he has worked with in the past and looks forward to doing going back.

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