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The Working Life: Santa Barbara Zoo’s Sheri Horiszny

From an early age, zoo's director of animal programs heard the call of the wild

Sheri Horiszny says her experience in marketing made her a natural for the job of director of animal programs for the Santa Barbara Zoo.
Sheri Horiszny says her experience in marketing made her a natural for the job of director of animal programs for the Santa Barbara Zoo.  (Jenn Kennedy photo / www.kennedypix.com)

The alluring call of the wild can happen anywhere. Sheri Horiszny, marketing executive turned Santa Barbara Zoo director of animal programs, has found the perfect intersection for both her skills and her soul.

Horiszny, originally from Lansing, Mich., grew up on a lake with a variety of animals. She recalls receiving a chick for Easter one year, which turned out to be a goose. She also had pet tadpoles, along with the standard fare of dogs and cats. She had passing thoughts of becoming a veterinarian, but she felt squeamish about the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.

Instead, Horiszny gravitated toward advertising, saying she liked how a story, via commercials, could be told in 30 seconds. With a focus on business psychology, she attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The summer of her junior year, she interned for a San Francisco advertising agency in the print production department, which confirmed her interest and first career. After graduation, Horiszny returned to the Bay Area to work for Young & Rubicam, initially in the traffic department and eventually on the account side, on several major consumer goods accounts.

After nearly five years, Horiszny moved to the firm now known as Hill Holiday for another four years of advertising. While she was enjoying enormous success, her affinity for animals never waned, and her dreams of working in that world beckoned. She began volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito to accumulate hours necessary toward applying to veterinary school.

Horiszny eventually began working as a contractor to allow more time with the animals, but finances demanded she take another job to bank some money, so she again shelved her dream and ran a small California agency, while going through a divorce.

Her turning point came one day on a walk when she noticed a gull tangled in fishing hooks and netting. She disrobed, swam out and, with the help of a friend, freed the animal. In that moment, Horiszny says, “I also freed myself. I knew it was time to take the leap and dedicate my life to helping animals.” Two days later, she resigned from her job and returned to school for a degree in biology.

Horiszny decided vet school would take too long and realized her years of marketing and management experience actually uniquely qualified her for zoo management. She first worked at Safari West, a wildlife preserve in Santa Rosa, for three years before coming on board at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

“Many think of zoos as an animal business, but it’s a people business, too,” Horiszny said. “We have hundreds of employees and thousands of guests to consider.”

As director of animal programs, she oversees 20 zookeepers and two curators, and is responsible for the planning and care of the entire animal collection.

As we tour the zoo, Horiszny names the giraffe as her favorite on-site animal.

“They are easygoing, and everything is new and interesting to them,” she explained.

She also informs me that they’re the tallest land animals as we edge into the patio overlooking their area. On cue, they glide right up to Horiszny and nuzzle her pocket for a treat and photo. She also mentions California Trails, an exhibit dedicated to California native species, including the California condor and Channel Island fox. The Santa Barbara Zoo has been at the forefront of efforts to repopulate and protect the nearly extinct California condor by monitoring their breeding, guarding their nests and ensuring vaccinations.

As a private, nonprofit organization established in 1963, the Santa Barbara Zoo is responsible for raising all necessary funds. Gate fees and restaurant and gift shop sales cover about 80 percent, and the other 20 percent is raised through various fundraising efforts, including zoo membership, animal sponsorship and guest feeding programs. The zoo, 300 Niños Drive, is also booked for birthday parties and weddings throughout the year. Zoofari, a night of dinner, dancing and auction, is its largest annual fundraising event.

Discovery Pavillion, an indoor lecture and event space, of which a groundbreaking will be held in 2011, is the result of the capital campaign, an ongoing effort to raise dollars toward building the facility. It will host classrooms, animal care offices, an animal kitchen, a volunteer lounge and a library, as well as a gallery for permanent and traveling zoo-related exhibits.

Click here for more information about upcoming events at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to see more of her work.

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