November 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Like most teenagers, Ellie Morrison has made many new friends during her high school career. But what makes her experience unique is that, in addition to classmates and teachers, some of Ellie’s friends include emperor scorpions, African penguins, gibbons, lions, and other resident creatures of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

The 17-year-old Papillion-La Vista High School senior is enrolled in her second year of Zoo Academy, a partnership between Henry Doorly Zoo and several local school districts, through which more than 90 high school juniors and seniors during the 2017/2018 academic year will study advanced zoology classes at the zoo, complete high school, receive college credit, and explore animal-related career paths. The program launched in 1995.

“My favorite part of Zoo Academy is— surprisingly enough—not the animals, but the people,” Morrison says. “The teachers especially are amazing and always do whatever they can to help you.”

Morrison starts her days at her home high school with band, choir, and chemistry classes. After third hour, she heads to the zoo, has lunch with friends, then resumes classes there at 11:45 a.m. Zoo Academy offers typical core classes—such as English and sociology—alongside zoo research, vet science, anatomy, and zoology, all taught by school district instructors. Some students attend all day, others part of the day, like Morrison.

Morrison has also volunteered at Henry Doorly Zoo for the past eight years, beginning with the XYZ (eXplore Your Zoo) volunteer program for grades 4-6, continuing into Junior Crew for junior high school volunteers, and culminating in Zoo Crew, the volunteer program for grades 9-12.

Zoo Crew volunteers do guest education and interaction throughout the zoo, help with special events, animal enrichment, outreach programs, and (in some cases) work with keepers. While she’s a lifelong animal lover, Morrison says she was a bit shy and not a total people person when she began volunteering. Her experiences at the zoo helped her gain confidence, people skills, and knowledge, which she now fosters in younger volunteers.

“The best part is knowing that I made the same transition myself, and that I’ve helped them become the people that I now know them to be,” she says.

Morrison also enjoys educating zoo-goers about conservation and the animal kingdom.

“Sometimes, the best part of my week is watching children and adults alike learn something new about the world,” Morrison says. “It’s always really nice to be able to teach something and have them walk away with a little bit more than they came in with.”

The animal interaction is a definite perk of the program. In her junior year zoology class, she helped clean, feed, and care for a trio of emperor scorpions, affectionately called “Larry, Moe, and Curly” after The Three Stooges.

“I’ve never been that close to a scorpion before, and it’s a little terrifying at first. But getting to know them, they all had different personalities. Like, one of them always ate all the food,” Morrison says.

She’s come to know many of the animals’ unique personalities and idiosyncrasies. For example, a certain roar from Mr. Big—a beloved lion who passed away in 2015—meant that someone was in his favorite spot. Morrison also came to learn that happy chatter from the gibbons in the morning could set a pleasant tone throughout the zoo for the day.

“I like the African penguins a lot,” Morrison says. “They’re super funny and always come up to say hello. There’s a penguin named Lucius who will follow you around and sit on your feet if he likes you.”

Before Zoo Academy, Morrison considered a veterinary career, but through her work and education at the zoo, she’s now leaning toward a more research-based wildlife career.

“I love going out into the field and doing research, observing and recording what’s happening,” Morrison says. “It’s really cool discovering things [beyond] what’s already known.”

From volunteer work to academics, Morrison says her time with the zoo has been a “game-changer on so many levels,” and it will be a part of her life forever.

“It’s a completely unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else,” Morrison says. “At a top-rated zoo in the world, there are definitely some things that are one of a kind: the keepers, the animals, just the atmosphere itself is completely unique.”

Visit omahazoo.com/education/volunteer/ youth to learn more about youth volunteer and educational opportunities at the Henry Doorly Zoo.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine.