A bit of good luck and fortunate timing were all it took for Becky Dewitz to land her dream job as Roosevelt Park Zoo's education coordinator.
Dewitz grew up in the Midwest, moving from place to place because of her father's job in the ministry. She called South Dakota, Colorado and North Dakota home at one time or another, and eventually ended up going to college at South Dakota State University, getting a hospitality degree in family and consumer sciences with minors in business administration and economics in 2002.
"My major was actually hotel restaurant management, and I'm so far from it," she said with a laugh.
Dan Feldner/MDN •
Becky Dewitz, right, education coordinator at Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, holds Jonesy, the domesticated ferret, while Eliana Duchscherer, 6, of Towner, pets it Friday afternoon at the zoo as her sister Anna, 4, looks on.
She lived in Brookings, S.D., until November 2005, when she moved to North Dakota with her husband because of a job he was offered taking care of 18 wind turbines in the Velva area.
"So that's what brought us north, and it was a great move for us. I didn't know what I would really find for employment upon moving to Minot, but here I am and I love it," Dewitz said. "I love my job."
Her business background was a perfect fit for the job at Roosevelt, as she is responsible for guest services, which includes the ticket booth, concessions and gift shop. She is also in charge of staffing, management and buying for the gift shop. This is in addition to her educational duties at the zoo and her assistance with the bookkeeping for the Greater Minot Zoological Society.
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Her father had Spanish Mustangs when Dewitz was growing up, so she had some familiarity with animals. But for the exotic animals she would be dealing with at the zoo, Dewitz had to dive into a multitude of reference works to bring herself up to speed on what she would be dealing with. Luckily, doing research has always been second nature to Dewitz.
"I am a person who enjoys challenges. So the fact that it was a new field for me was very exciting, and I love research. Since college, I've loved research," she said. "I was one of those people that (did) research papers for fun."
Her love of learning has served Dewitz well at Roosevelt, as she is constantly researching educational programs, information for animal education talks and business practices.
The zoo's fiscal year is coming to a close, so Dewitz is currently doing a lot of budget planning. But once September rolls around, her focus will shift to education.
"And I really enjoy going to the classroom. That's probably the highlight of the job. The kids, their eyes, they're so inquisitive, the questions they have," she said.
Dewitz says she sees approximately 4,000 to 5,000 kids every year in on- and off-site educational programs. Students aren't the only ones Dewitz will be instructing, either. In October and November she also holds for-credit educational classes for teachers with the assistance of JoAnn Schapp, a science teacher at Bishop Ryan High School with a master's degree.
One of the classes is called Teaching for Tigers, which teaches about conservation biology, the biology of a tiger, and the dynamics of conservation.
"It's one of my favorite classes to teach because tiger conservation hits home for me. Tigers are one of my favorite animals, and in the last 100 years over 95 percent of the population has died," Dewitz said. "So it's a very interesting class to teach."
She noted that unless things change, it is believed that wild tigers will become extinct in 50 to 100 years.
Another class she teaches is called Habitat Ecology Learning Program. HELP teaches about the ecology of a habitat, the animals living within that habitat, and the adaptations of those animals. Wetlands habitat will be covered in the fall, while a class called How Nature Works will be done in February.
"Both of the programs we teach were curriculum developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is out of the Bronx Zoo, and it is an award-winning curriculum," she said.
A sampling of some of the many other programs Dewitz is involved in include Zoo Camp, the Zoo Teen Program, the docent program and Teens for Planet Earth.
Teens for Planet Earth involves three teenagers and Dewitz said they won a silver award with the Wildlife Conservation Society for their work in Wildwood Park. They planted more than 300 trees and will be planting more this fall. She said the number of cumulative hours the group and other volunteers put in totaled 230.5
"And that is one thing I have to say: Minot, when it comes to volunteers, is just state-of-the-art. I have never worked amongst a community where there is such a strong sense of volunteerism and community support," she said. "It's truly amazing."
It's working with kids and animals that Dewitz enjoys most about her job. Dewitz said she once took a penguin to St. Leo's Catholic School as part of an outreach program and after the presentation, three children raised their hands and said they wanted to be zookeepers when they grew up so they could take care of the penguins.
"And so you know that you're absolutely reaching them when they say things like that," she said.