From porcupines to birds to bearcats, Florida Gulf Coast University alumna Becca Fort has brought tales of prickly, feathery and furry friends to people during the past year in a way that she never envisioned.
Fort, a 24-year-old Boynton Beach native and 2019 FGCU graduate, has worked as an animal interpreter at the Memphis Zoo since February 2020. Today, her job duties have largely returned to normal as have operations at the 115-year-old zoo, which houses about 3,500 creatures representing 500 species across its 70-acre grounds.
But in the beginning, even before she got truly settled into her new career, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the structure of Fort’s job for the foreseeable future. Most of her duties as an animal interpreter involve face-to-face interactions with visitors, teaching them about the animals she and the zoo staff care for and about the habitats the creatures live in. However, the pandemic put a stop to much of the zoo’s operations.
“It was cool to take a step back and focus on our relationships with the animals,” Fort said. “I did miss talking to people because you can’t be an interpreter without liking to talk to people, and that is a lot of our job.”
As was the case with other workers impacted by the pandemic, Fort and her colleagues searched for new ways to adapt their programs to the restrictions. The team decided to bring all the animal action to the world virtually through Memphis Zoo’s Facebook page, which has about 270,000 followers. Its videos attract thousands of viewers.
Appearing on the zoo’s Facebook Live videos, Fort educated viewers about exotic creatures such as turkey vultures and an albino gray rat snake. Although the Facebook Live sessions have stopped as visitors have returned to the zoo, Fort says she’s prepared to go back online if the situation again calls for remote zoo education.
Now, Fort said she is involved with other in-person programs such as “VIP” encounters with the zoo’s joeys (baby kangaroos) and random pop-up chats. The chats enable visitors to observe animals while they learn about those creatures’ importance to the environment.
“It’s always fun to talk about conservation and to connect with people,” Fort said. “We’re not going to connect with every single guest because everyone is different and has different priorities, but it’s also really cool when you see that someone found an animal to be cool.”
Teaching others about conservation is another aspect of Fort’s job that she takes seriously. Her love for nature and the need to preserve it began at a young age with lessons her father taught her.
Her father, Gus Fort, who was in the Air Force, led diving tours when he was off duty while stationed in Guam. Her father’s stories and the pictures he shared inspired Fort to want to learn all she could about the environment.
“That was my first taste of nature,” Fort said. “When we moved to Florida, that’s when it really took off for me. I was fostered into appreciating nature and what it can do for us, just because of my family.”
Growing up, Fort’s appreciation for the outdoors expanded during summer trips with her family to places such as Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.
“I love FGCU. I honestly don’t think that I would’ve thrived at any other college,” Fort said. “I learned so much that I don’t think that I could’ve elsewhere. My professors were awesome, and everything in environmental studies was so hands-on.”
After graduating, Fort went to work as an apprentice animal ambassador at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, before coming to the Memphis Zoo.
Looking forward, Fort realizes the importance of her job as a bridge to human knowledge of conservation.
“We always try to talk about conservation. We always have a message that each animal has an important job that can help us,” Fort said. “Whether it’s pest control that snakes can do or even turkey vultures and how they keep the environment clean by eating dead things, we’re always pushing to talk about how we can help these animals and how they help us.”
Fort said she is exactly where she wants to be in her field. All her life she wanted to find a happy medium that involves both environmental education and her love for animals, and as a professional interpreter for an accredited zoo, Fort is doing exactly that.
— Tyler Watkins is a senior journalism major who’s part of an internship program coordinated by University Marketing & Communications. FGCU students interested in learning about news and feature writing along with other aspects of public relations and marketing while earning internship credit hours should contact Keith Gibson at [email protected]