The Ohio State University at Newark

The Call of The Wild

February 13, 2019

Deep in the Heart of Africa, Jessica Sotkovsky finds her zen studying the giraffes. She can tell them apart, call them by name and point out their idiosyncrasies. Lance, for example, may not be the tallest in the tower (the technical term for a group of giraffes), but he is a superhero in his own right. This well-mannered giraffe is great with guests during public feedings and is a plasma donor, an act that saves the lives of giraffes across the country.

A self-described lover of animals and nature, Sotkovsky spent most of the past year as an interpretive assistant at the Columbus Zoo. It’s given this Newark High School graduate and current junior at Ohio State Newark a much-needed direction to declare a major — evolution and ecology — and continue her education toward a bachelor’s degree.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to fall into a rut where I didn’t want to go to work because I didn’t like my job. That’s why I skipped a semester,” she explained. “I started to meditate on what would I love to spend the rest of my life doing. The zoo really helped me find that.”

Her job is to facilitate guest interactions with animals and advocate for conservation. It’s a topic she was introduced to and internalized at the Columbus Zoo, which has helped hundreds of dedicated wildlife heroes across the globe protect threatened and endangered animals and their critical habitats through its Columbus Zoo Fund for Conservation.

“Jessica is really good at engaging with guests. She’s not afraid to jump right in and talk about the animals. Her knowledge and passion definitely show when she’s here,” said Brianne Warthman, senior education instructor at the Columbus Zoo. “One of our goals is to help seasonal interpreters grow. We like to provide resources and give them opportunity. Sometimes that means inspiring them to make the next step.”

For now, Sotkovsky says her favorite part of the job is what other people receive from it. Like the time she engaged two elderly ladies in a conversation about the reproductive cycle of kangaroos, which is super interesting she says with the nonchalance of someone discussing the latest blockbuster. When she’s asked a question she doesn’t know, it’s a new opportunity to learn. You can bet that next time she will be prepared to answer it.

“I feel like our lives aren’t nearly as curious as they should be,” she explained. “When you get to bring that out in people, and you see it on their faces, it’s really nice. Giving back to the community in that sense is one of my best experiences.”

That and her first time feeding the giraffes. Or the end of the day when she’s surrounded by bright-eyed lorikeets. Or the time she had lunch with Moana, a western lowland gorilla. They bonded over art and vegetables, an exchange that was so beautiful, Sotkovsky said, it almost brought her to tears.

“People think you’re this really interesting person because you work at the zoo. I feel very proud to put on that uniform.”

And yes, she has met Jack Hanna. “I had this whole speech planned out in my head. I was going to thank him, and tell him that I was a big fan and I really appreciate everything he does. All I could do was gawk and ask him to sign my book.”

He happily obliged, also autographing some photographs and a hat. So now all she has to do is look up for a little inspiration from her idol.