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When the commitment to conservation is more than skin deep

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

This image of an Aplomado falcon feather belongs to Mark, a Woodland Park Zoo curator who is passionate about birds. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher
It is said that those who wear their hearts on their sleeves are open and willing to share their feelings for something they feel strongly about. For some members of our Woodland Park Zoo community, that means wearing their passions in other places, like on their shoulders, legs and backs.

Jill has worked with many different species in her carreer. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Many staff at the zoo are here because of the mission—they care deeply about animals, the environment and conservation. And for quite a few, that passion runs so deep that they’ve decided to make it permanent by getting tattoos to represent the animals they care deeply for and the commitment to protect and save species in the wild.

Jill has elephants and tigers that she cared for etched across her back. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
Jill has cared for many different species in her career as an animal keeper and care manager—and her love for a few individuals is etched into her skin. On each shoulder there is an Asian elephant. Suki and Hanako are older females living at Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, where Jill worked with them for several years—developing a deep bond. “I love both of those girls so much”, says Jill. “Suki in particular has a remarkable life story and I respect her more than anyone I have ever met—human and animal alike.” 

Jill also has a pair of endangered Sumatran tigers inked on her back—cubs that she helped raise as tiny kittens and that she holds a deep affection for. 

Chad prepares a snack for one of the zoo's greater one-horned rhinos. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo

Chad's passion for rhino conservation led to the creation of the Horns for Heroes Project. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
Chad—who is married to Jill—is also a zookeeper. If you’ve visited Woodland Park Zoo’s Assam Rhino Reserve you may have seen him taking care of Taj and Glenn, our greater one-horned rhinos. Chad has dozens of colorful tattoos on his arms and legs, including at least nine rhinos. But the love for these animals is more than skin deep for Chad. He and Jill are both very active in rhino conservation. They are the founders of the Horns and Heroes Project. It is an art show and auction to raise awareness about rhino poaching and to highlight ongoing conservation efforts. All the money they raise from these efforts support the International Rhino Foundation (IRF)—one of Woodland Park Zoo’s official Conservation Partners that has feet on the ground in Asia, including the Indian subcontinent and in Africa. Since 2012, the Horns and Heroes Project has raised nearly $70,000 for the IRF. 

Wendy prepares fresh greens for one of the animals she cares for. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Wendy has a beautiful image on her leg of Chrissie, a favorite tree kangaroo who helped her get through hard times. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
Wendy also has some skin in the game for conservation. She is an animal keeper with a deep love for tree kangaroos—and specifically one individual named Chrissie who used to live at Woodland Park Zoo. Chrissie was a Matschie’s tree kangaroo—an endangered species native to Papua New Guinea which is also the flagship species for the zoo’s signature Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program. But Chrissie was more than just a conservation ambassador to Wendy—she was also a source of comfort. “We just had a special bond that words can’t really explain. She helped me get through some of the pain and grief I felt when my dog passed away. Coming to work and seeing her made things better. She was just so cute and sweet I couldn’t help but smile.”

Katie has a giraffe—an animal she is passionate about—etched onto her arm.

Katie, who was an animal keeper at Woodland Park Zoo for many years, recently left for Namibia where she works with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Photo: courtesy of Katie A.
Katie’s love for giraffes is so strong that she recently traded her zookeeper job at Woodland Park Zoo and her Seattle home for an opportunity in Namibia, working with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GFC)—another organization the zoo helps support. While here, Katie was one of the lead keepers who cared for our whole giraffe family, including Dave, Olivia, Tufani and the latest addition—a male calf born earlier this year named Hasani. It was only natural that a giraffe tattoo was in the cards for Katie, but she spent quite a long time considering the design. “This tattoo is representative of all the giraffes I have cared for at the zoo and my hopes for the future of giraffes in the wild.”

Susan loves to talk to zoo guests—about bears and other wildlife. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Susan has bear footprints "walking" across her ankle! Photo: Susan P./Woodland Park Zoo
While many tattoos are true-to-life representations of specific animals, others offer a more subtle nod to a favorite animal. For example, Susan—an educator who has been part of our zoo family for more than 30 years—is not shy about her love for bears. “I really love bears, especially grizzly bears”, says Susan, showing off the tattoo of bear footprints on her ankle. “People really never have to ask me about bears because I’m pretty much ready to talk about them any time, prompted or not!”

Rubai says her lotus tattoo represents the importance of connecting to the natural world. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Rubai, who heads up some of the zoo’s community outreach projects, has a couple tattoos with more symbolic conservation connections. Of her dragonfly and lotus flower designs, she says “both represent the importance of connecting with nature and the spiritual elements of the natural world. Nature is a part of who we are and we need to care for it.”

Woodland Park Zoo team member and bug/insect lover Katie did get an image of a katydid etched onto her arm. Photo: Elizabeth BacherWoodland Park Zoo
Everyone highlighted here has very personal reasons for getting their tattoos, but all of them agree that the inspiration they represent has opened doors to some important public discussions. Sometimes the tattoos themselves lead to conversations about the individual animals and about what actions we can all take to keep these species and others from going extinct in the wild.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."- The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
One of my own tattoos was inspired by a children’s book—The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Lorax is a character who “speaks for the trees” and represents the environment. It’s a cautionary tale about the destruction of the environment that happens as a result of over-exploiting the natural world. In the story, that plight is represented by the word “UNLESS” engraved onto a stone monument. As the narrator explains, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." 

One zoo team member has an image on their back representing Xerxes, the zoo's male lion. It includes birds seemingly emerging from his mane. Photo: Woodland Park Zoo

These inked pieces of art are a part of each of us. They’re reminders—some private, some public—that motivate and inspire us to care about animals and conservation. They convey a message that speaks to the heart—which so many of us are proud to wear on our sleeves and elsewhere. So next time you see some ink at the zoo, or anywhere, know that it most likely represents something very special to the person wearing it—something that runs more than skin deep.

To learn more about how you can support conservationists and folks working hard to protect species here in the Pacific Northwest and around the world, visit


Anonymous said…
I love this story! So many employees have to hide their body art and the fact that Woodland Park Zoo sees the beauty in them is very special. Thank you.
jp said…
I have a tattoo of Kemma or Denali, not sure which but it doesn't matter because I love them both so much. I also have a crow and a Valais blacknose sheep. Animal tattoos are the best. So happy to see that the zoo crew have them too.