What It's Like to Be a San Diego Zoo Ambassador, AKA The Coolest Job on Earth
Rick Schwartz has the best job in the world.
He's not a multimillionaire CEO or a pro athlete or a movie star. But I am 100% certain his job is the best one. Sorry, everyone else.
Rick's official title is ambassador for San Diego Zoo Global, a role that takes him many places and shows him many things most of us never get to experience. He's done everything from scoping out tortoises in the Galapagos Islands to basking in the glow of a Kenyan sunset on a safari—a moment he described to me as "heaven on earth." I am jealous of Rick, and you should be, too.
But Rick's work is more than just visiting stunning locales and doing national-news-show hits with troupes of adorable animals in tow. (Yeah, he gets to do that, too.) I chatted with Rick about what it's like to have one of the coolest jobs imaginable. Here's what I found out.
He's not an actor.
If you looked him up, you might just assume that Rick is sort of a face for the San Diego Zoo. Some of the signs are there: the news-show spots, the "Zookeeper Rick" name, the blue verified checkmark on his Twitter and Instagram pages. But Rick is a bonafide, 100% authentic wildlife professional—not someone playing the part. "I'd have to say the biggest misconception people have about my role at the zoo is that I am a hired actor/spokesperson," he tells me. "Yes, I am introduced as 'Zookeeper Rick,' but I think some people take that as a stage name and don't realize that most of my career has been in animal care and behavior studies. I just happen to like talking a lot about animals, too!"
He's never had the same day twice.
Lamenting another day in a dull work routine is a cold reality for lots of people, but Rick's not one of them. "The broadest possible and most accurate summary is there is no typical day," Rick says of his job. Any day could see him working at the zoo or its sister Safari Park, running into stars such as Katherine Heigl or Kelly Ripa during a TV appearance, or flying around the world to film and research the planet's wildest animals in their natural habitats.
Animals are family to him.
It's not exactly surprising, but the bonds Rick forms with the animals he cares for are lifelong and ironclad. "They become family in a way. And in all fairness, you are with them more than your human family; many of them you have known since their birth or hatching," he explains. That leads to the toughest part of Rick's job (or that of any zookeeper or wildlife conservation pro): the fact that you'll likely outlive the animals you care for. "We recognize that these animals are not pets and we don't have the same physical relationship with them that we have with pets. But the bond and love we feel for them is no less than anyone else you care for in life," he says.
He's got his favorites.
Just like any bright-eyed kid at a zoo, Rick still has favorite creatures in the animal kingdom. While the koala, turkey vulture, snow leopard, and giraffe are his favorite marsupial, raptor, big cat, and ungulate, respectively, one animal stands out even above those as his overall fave. "The binturong—B-I-N-T-U-R-O-N-G—also known as a bearcat," he says, literally spelling it out for me so there's no confusion. "They are structurally that of a carnivore but they're omnivorous in their behavior and they're just a great, great animal."
He's not afraid of any creature—to an extent.
Nope, not even snakes or spiders. "I think at this point in my career I can honestly say no," Rick says when asked if any animals out there scare him. "That said, if I was out hiking and accidentally surprised a female grizzly bear with cubs, I understand she may feel the need to go on the offensive if I was perceived as a threat to her cubs," he adds. "At that point I would be scared, but would also rely on what I know to hopefully make it out of that situation unharmed."
Bottom line: it takes passion.
Sometimes, I think that I could be a wildlife professional. "I would love to pet a panda!" is usually the weak justification I give to the idea. But talking to someone like Rick puts ideas like that in their place. "It is a work of passion, not a work of pay," he says. "You will not make much financially, it is physically demanding, and you will be working all hours in all weather conditions." So you need to care about more than just being around cool animals—a lot more.
And that kind of passion for the job means the most rewarding part of a position like Rick's might not be what you think it is. "The perspective people have when I'm doing something with animals is they're looking at the animal, not looking at me ... My perspective, however, is while they're all looking at the animal, I can see everybody's face … And I can see the wonder and awe and excitement ... So for me, the best part of my job is getting that visual sort of feedback from people," he says.