Explore Their Journey: Kontessa St. Clair

Journey 5 min read

Transitioning into Guest Services with Kontessa St.Clair

If you're like most of our readers, you probably know that the core of any zoo is the zookeepers. The animals need to be taken care of! However, you might not know that you can build a career with working inside the business development teams of zoos. How? Well, zoos are a business, and like any business, there are various roles that work together to make the machine run.

We sat down with Kontessa St.Clair from the Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoake, Virginia to learn more about her experiences.

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About the Mill Mountain Zoo

Mill Mountain Zoo was founded in 1952 as a nursery-rhyme themed petting zoo that featured farm animals, birds, and native Virginia wildlife. For the first twenty-five years, we were operated by Roanoke's Parks and Recreation Department.

In 1978, the Roanoke Jaycees renewed the zoo and replaced old exhibits to create a place appealing to all ages. Governance was turned over to the Blue Ridge Zoological Society of Virginia, Inc. in 1988 (more commonly known as Mill Mountain Zoo).

Explore the Zoo!

In the early 1990's, a citizens' committee created a master plan for exhibitions, visitor amenities, and expansion of the site to our current eight acres. Other improvements included new exhibits and an upgrade of infrastructure. Mill Mountain Zoo (MMZoo) is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to promoting an appreciation and understanding of the animal and habitat preservation through the use of quality exhibits, educational programs, and partnerships with other conservation programs.

Mill Mountain Zoo is currently home to more than 183 animals, representing 70 species from around the world. Through our admissions and donations, we support local and global conservation efforts. The Zoo is also restoring habitat on-grounds to benefit declining pollinator species and participates in a national monitoring program for amphibians -- Frogwatch. Keeper Chats The zookeepers love sharing information about their animals.

Building a career at a smaller zoo

Not all careers start out at large state-sponsored zoos. In fact, there are over 200 smaller zoos around the United States that protect and nurture wildlife in order to teach their local communities about the world we live in. Working in these zoos feels like working with a family. They are perfect places to get your feet wet within the zoological industry as well as gain valuable work experience in various fields before specializing in your career. As with any other zoo, small zoos are a business and come with their own unique challenges, challenges you'll be able to help solve.

Understanding the Journey with Kontessa St.Clair

Guest Services Manager at the Mill Mountain Zoo

1) How did you get started with the zoo industry?

“I actually got started with zookeeping”

As with many of the roles at a smaller zoo, zookeeping is the bread and butter that makes the entire machine run. Typically you'll need a lot of unpaid experience to get started in the industry because we can't let someone who doesn't know what they are doing handle the animals. Zookeeping in itself is fun but has a lot of hard work, work that you do for the love of the work, not the money. At times it can be physically and emotionally taxing with the expectation being that you lift 50lbs or more constantly, have vertical mobility, and being open to a lot of manual labor such as squeeging, scrubbing, and animal training.

Kontessa transitioned to her current role by picking up work at the zoo's gift shop and by developing the management and managerial skills working with people grew into her role in guest services.

2) What’s the biggest challenge you have with your role right now and how are you going to overcome it?

“There are two challenges that we're facing at the moment: the first is money and second is staffing issues.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mill Mountain zoo was closed for several months, producing almost no income during their peak months of April and May. This loss of revenue led to a drastic change in operations at the zoo including but not limited to soliciting donations, creative membership sales, and being financially savvy with their revolving income/expenses. Although financial aid in the form of PPP loans helped the organization, the zoo still has animals to take care of, taking furloughs off the table for critical animal care staff.

The second issue of staffing is also a direct result of the coronavirus. The zoo implemented policies similar to those adopted by bigger cities where employees were scheduled, organized, and tested to minimize contamination. For example, if an employee visited another state where the cases were great than 15 per 1000 people, they were required to be tested and isolated before coming back to work.

3) What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had in the last few months and why?

As a small business, with no more than 15 employees on staff and none of our usual volunteers, we rallied to reopen the zoo. We painted, power washed, and brought the zoo back to an opening state for our visitors and pushed through the challenging time even with our short staff.

4) What’s an area you are curious about and why? Or, what are some of the things you’re researching the most right now?

An area we're looking at is more digital accessibility.

With Covid-19, we don't have any more field trips which were a major source of income. We're looking at a lot of new ways to get the same lesson to our visitors as well as boost online sales in unique, cost-effective ways. A few examples are merchandising items, working with local companies, and revamping our online website.

5) Advice on how a beginner can start working in a similar role? Skills, expectation, experiences...

Having the basics is very important but to a great extent, managerial skills unique to managing to a zoo help a lot. At a smaller zoo-like ours, it helps to think creatively and understand the potential. You also have to expect fallback and need to be able to make it work by bouncing back quickly and understanding a quick turnaround. If you can help grow memberships, communicate, and sell as well as help in the implementation of new signage, branding, copywriting and other growth marketing, you'd do well in guest services.