Laura Tardieu has loved animals since she was a child, so it came as no surprise when she chose to work at a zoo. Tardieu is employed at Emperor Valley Zoo, where she has assumed the position of temporary zoologist since February. Dressed unpretentiously in a pair of track pants, polo shirt and sneakers, Tardieu looked quite relaxed while seated in the lobby of the Zoological Society's office on the zoo's compound during a recent interview. The 28-year-old shared her experiences at several foreign zoos and the changes she hoped to implement in the diets of the animals here at home.
When she was ten, Tardieu said she was inspired by a documentary and knew at that point exactly what she wanted to do. "My dream was inspired by a film. There was a zoologist who was protecting elephants whose tusks were being hunted, and I felt strongly about that, and I said to myself 'I wanna do what he is doing.' That was my inspiration," she said.
She added that she inherited her love from animals from her father.
After obtaining an honours degree in zoology from the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, Tardieu returned home and began working at the zoo. Apart from that, she has completed internships at four foreign zoos: Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the Peace Rover and Ranch in Florida. She also completed a two-week venom training course at the National Aquarium and a three-month animal training course at Emperor Valley Zoo. To top it off, while at university, she copped the Helen I Battle Medal and Scholarship in 2005-2006 and the Albert O Jeffrey Scholarship in 2005.
A past student of Providence Girls' and Maple Leaf International, Tardieu said she chose zoology because "it was an interesting field...still relatively new, and new stuff keeps popping up all the time." She said zoology was a well known field in Europe, Australia and North America. Contrary to what many people think, Tardieu said there was more to the position than feeding and cleaning. "It's not just feeding and cleaning, but maintaining the enclosures; making sure they are adequate and the animals' diets are sufficient. It is about the well-being and the health of the animals."
Speaking about her internships, she said, "It was very educational and informative. You learn a lot when you actually have to do it. Talking about it is one thing. "It isn't about playing with the animals. A lot of hard work is involved, but it is fun work if you like animals." While abroad, Tardieu was exposed to the systems and protocols carried out by the zoos, which she hoped could be implemented here. The zoo is undergoing extensive renovations, in a bid to keep up with international standards. "I learnt a lot over there about their systems and their protocols. They have everything down to the signs."
Earlier this year, Tardieu had the opportunity to spend five weeks at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska. While there, Tardieu gained knowledge in nutrition and diet formulation and zookeeping practices used by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
A report, which she prepared for the Zoological Society on her return, stated, "My five-week nutrition internship at the Henry Doorly Zoo was extremely educational for me, and I succeeded in achieving my primary purpose of gaining some knowledge in diet and nutrition. "I was also able to learn a great deal about the organisation and operations of the zoo, by interning at the various areas of the zoo. Additionally, I learnt about the intrinsically important role that education and technology transfer play in research and conservation programmes of North American institutions."
These days, most of her time is spent conducting research about the 100-plus animals at Emperor Valley. She said with a huge smile, "A lot of my work right now is sitting behind the computer. It's tiring, but it's got to get done." She hopes to be able to prepare diet sheets for the animals and develop ways to maintain the all-round well-being of the animals. "Currently, there is a kitchen keeper who has everything in his head. What I want to be able to do is have diet sheets... For example, this is a toucan, and this is what he eats and the quantity." Her next step after formulating the diets will be to focus on the animals' enclosures. "It is still a learning process for me."