SCOTTSBLUFF — Every morning, interns at Riverside Discovery Center arrive at the zoo to spend their day working alongside experienced staff, getting hands-on experience for their future careers.

Education intern Jude Al-Mutlaq has found a variety of opportunities at the zoo to do what she loves.

Al-Mutlaq enjoys the educational aspect of teaching, but not the typical classroom setting of a school. Working as an education curator provides the opportunity to be more engaged while also working with live animals. She has previously worked as an education intern at the Butterfly Pavilion and at Nature’s Educators in Sedalia, Colorado, with birds of prey and reptiles.

Jack Hilgert has several years of experience working in zoos. He is still in college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but has worked for many years, beginning as a volunteer at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. When he saw the position for an executive intern in Scottsbluff, he decided to try something different for this summer.

Hilgert mostly works with Zoo Director Anthony Mason, Head Zookeeper Nancee Hutchinson and Education Curator Alex Henwood, to learn the different aspects of how a zoo is managed, but is willing to work anywhere he can learn.

“One of the reasons I went gung ho for this position is that it offered a lot of unique opportunities that I haven’t seen,” he said. “I haven’t seen an intern position like this offered at another zoo.”

Hilgert is studying to receive a degree in fisheries and wildlife with an emphasis in zoo animal care. He has always loved zoos. When Hilgert was a little boy, his mother bought him some cheap, plastic animal toys. His obsession has never stopped.

He began in the youth volunteer program in Omaha in fifth grade and was hired on part-time after he graduated high school. He completed an internship at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo during the last school year.

For a long time, Al-Mutlaq thought she would pursue zookeeping or work with animals in a sanctuary. Then, she realized teaching and making connections with children was a lot of fun. With degrees in molecular biology and evolutionary biology, Al-Mutlaq uses her education to teach children through hands-on activities and writing curriculum.

Henwood has been there to help guide Al-Mutlaq in her work.

“With the day camp, I wrote the curriculum, but didn’t schedule any outside time,” she said. “It was really hot that day and Alex made a few suggestions for changes.”

The campers spent some time at the Splash Pad cooling down before returning inside to learn about Madagascar cockroaches and bearded dragons. Al-Mutlaq said she appreciates that Henwood allows her to take her own steps and learn, but doesn’t say there is only one way to do things.

At the zoo, there is always something to do, and Al-Mutlaq and Hilgert are constantly gaining new experiences. There is no typical day at work. On Thursday morning, Hilgert helped staff with getting the final swift fox to go get their vaccinations. The five swift foxes needed to be caught in their exhibit and moved to a separate area so each one could receive their five necessary vaccinations, to check their weight and other vital statistics.

Al-Mutlaq works with Henwood regularly planning and executing the educational aspects of the zoo. She has also been working with the Zoofari kids, young volunteers who work at the zoo over the summer. Al-Mutlaq and Hilgert have also spent time working in the education lab to organize the programs the zoo does have and make it more user friendly.

“It’s fun to see that once we do that, no one in their right mind is going to go in and reorganize it,” he said. “It’s nice to know some of the stuff we do will stick around.”

Organizing documents is sometimes tedious, but Al-Mutlaq is having fun.

“It’s amazing seeing how many pelts and education stuff we have,” she said. “We have so many cool things.”

Al-Mutlaq has also been helping Henwood transfer all the old curriculum into a new format that the AZA will soon be requiring.

But, it’s not all paperwork and no fun. Every time Al-Mutlaq works at the tiger enclosure, Nika, a female Amur tiger, chuffs for her.

“She’s adorable and to see one up close is amazing after being used to working with invertebrates,” she said. “In Denver, you never see anything.”

Hilgert enjoys the big cats and the bears, but Otis, a yellow-and-blue macaw seems to like him, despite Al-Mutlaq’s efforts to the contrary.

“I sneak him peanuts because I want him to love me,” she said. “But Otis will crawl on Jack’s lap when he is here.”

As an intern, Hilgert likes seeing how a smaller zoo is run. He was initially surprised that Mason works concessions. In Omaha and Lincoln, the director would not do such a job.

“It’s great to see how willing he is to jump in and do what needs to be done,” Hilgert said.

Everything Hilgert has done is different than what he expected and he’s enjoying every minute of it.

“It’s fun because I get to spend the whole day with Anthony and we have time to talk about a lot of things,” he said. “To have that with an unpaid internship is unique.”

Once she has the required intern time for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Al-Mutlaq hopes to find a permanent position in Colorado.

“I think I would enjoy being an education curator even if it’s at a small zoo,” she said. “But a larger zoo like Denver would be good for making a difference in how curriculum are made.”

Hilgert will return to UNL to finish his degree. His long-term goal is to be a curator or director. He enjoys the organizational parts of the job, including breeding plans, moving animals from one place to another and keeping track of animals and their relationships within the AZA system. He already knows a lot about Ussuri, a male Amur tiger, who lives at the zoo.

“Ussuri was the first offspring of a male tiger, Sasha, in Omaha,” Hilgert said. “He (Sasha) was born in Omaha and went to the Syracuse zoo where Ussuri was born. Sasha is back in Omaha.”

Hilgert said it is important for anyone who wants to work in a zoo to have a good work ethic and get involved even if it’s only volunteering. He was hired on in Omaha because of his attitude and work ethic as a volunteer. Coming from a small town, Al-Mutlaq didn’t have those opportunities, but she learned that if she wanted them, she had to advocate for herself.

“I came here as a zookeeping intern, but realized I’m an educator,” she said. “I had to do it to know I didn’t want that.”

She advocated for herself and Mason agreed to move her to an educator intern.

Both agreed, regardless of whether you end up working in a zoo, you will learn what types of work within a zoo you will find to be rewarding.

“One nice thing about zoo work, especially at a smaller facility, everyone has a cog, but there aren’t a lot of niche departments,” Hilgert said. “There are opportunities that will give you a wide range of experiences.”

Irene North is a staff reporter at the Star-Herald. Contact her at 308-632-9041 or by email at irene.north@starherald.com.