Sixty-one-year-old zoo keeper Sue Barnard is a walking testimony to doing work that you love. Working with animals keeps her vibrant, excited, and full of ideas for the future. Barnard is currently the lead keeper of Zoo Atlanta's Reptile House, and the director of a nonprofit conservation organization called Basically Bats, which she founded, as well as being the author of several books on the animals. Barnard says about her success, "When you love what you do, it shines, and people can see it."
Barnard says that as she was growing up, she was taught that she should get married and have children, not have a career. She was also told by her father that she was too stupid to go to college, that it would be a waste of money because she would never graduate. Barnard married at 19 and had kids, but says she "was miserable." When she was 36, Barnard decided she needed to "be herself," so she asked herself "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Barnard realized that she wanted to work with exotic animals and then she set out to make it happen.
By a happy coincidence, Barnard was living in the one town in the U.S. with a school that offered a degree in Zookeeping at that time - Gainesville, Florida. She began attending the zookeeping program, but Barnard eventually transferred to the University of Florida because she thought she might want to be a veterinarian. After an internship at Zoo Atlanta, however, Barnard knew that zookeeping was what she wanted to do. This was a hard decision for Barnard, because she was still feeling that she needed to please, and felt that becoming a vet would help her meet people's expectations and prove her intelligence.
Ultimately, Barnard concluded that it was herself that she really needed to please, so she finished her zookeeping degree and came to work for Zoo Atlanta. It can get down and dirty in the reptile house, but Barnard is a scientist and a professional, and it doesn't faze her. For instance, when she first started working there, Barnard wanted to test herself on how well she had learned about parasites, so she took some reptile dung and examined it. Barnard looked at it with a friend who had taken the same parasitology class she had, and neither could identify the parasites in it. "I wanted to know what it was," Barnard said, and she discovered that there was a gap in the knowledge about reptiles which she decided to fill. Her work identifying parasites led Barnard to co-author A Veterinary Guide to the Parasites of Reptiles. The first volume of the guide has been out for two years, and she is conducting research for volume two now.
As lead keeper, Barnard feeds the reptiles, cleans cages, gives talks, answers questions, builds exhibits, and does research. "In the old days" before the zoo had a vet department, Barnard also handled the reptiles' medical problems, including doing surgery. Barnard answers visitors' questions about all kinds of animals, not only reptiles, which is how she became involved with her other great love - bats. Over a decade ago, painters brought some baby bats that were covered in paint to the Reptile House to see if they could be saved. Barnard volunteered to try to save them, and did manage to save one, who lived nine and a half years. (Bats in the wild can live much longer, but Barnard holds longevity records for bats in captivity - nine and a half to eleven years.)
Barnard's interest in bats led her to found "Basically Bats," a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on the benefits of bats, and to conducting bat-related rehabilitation and research projects. "There are so many benefits that bats provide," Barnard says, "People just don't realize." Bats are the major predators of night flying insects, which helps protect crops. "Natural methods are safer for people and the environment than pesticides, so in the daytime you want birds to do your pest control for you, and at night, you want bats."
Bats also help reforest rainforests by spitting or excreting seeds as they fly. "They are the only animals that will fly over slashed-and-burned areas," says Barnard. They are responsible for up to eighty percent of reforestation. Bats are also major pollenators, and pollenate many medicinal plants, as well as crops. "Between two and three hundred products in grocery stores are bat-derived," Barnard says, listing peaches, plums, and pears as examples.
Bats are primarily threatened by people's ignorance of how beneficial they are and how they behave, Barnard explains. People worry about bats being dangerous and rabid, but Barnard says that not only is it uncommon for bats to have rabies, but when they do, their rabies is of a paralytic nature. This means that they can't fly, so they cannot attack. "If you see one lying on the ground, don't pick it up. It's that easy to keep from being bitten by a rabid bat. It's different with skunks, raccoons, cats, and dogs, but with bats, just stay away."
After she retires, in ten years or so, Barnard plans to use some land she owns to construct a headquarters for Basically Bats. "It's part of a ‘greenway'," she says, "A greenway is like a highway, only it's for people to bike, hike, or walk. One day we'd like for people to be able to travel all the way across the U.S. on greenways."
(c) Copyright 1996 Tabatha Yeatts
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