The college of trial and error
Four years earlier, as Cordell wrapped up high school in Washington, she searched for colleges with a strong zoology program. She’s always loved animals, and family vacations – always outdoors, hiking and camping – fueled her love of nature. But it was her grandpa who planted the idea of working with animals professionally. For a number of years, he volunteered regularly at aquariums.
“I would visit him at the Seattle aquarium when he was volunteering, and he loved it,” Cordell says. “He had so much fun. And I think that probably helped spark that interest.”
"I think college is about trying different things and figuring out what you like and what you don’t like... If you find out something you don’t like, that’s just as valuable as finding out something that you do."
Cordell attended the College of Science from 2012 to 2016, serving as an officer in the Integrative Biology Club and on the Student Advisory Committee for the College. While her classes formed a solid foundation for her future profession, her internships helped give Cordell direction.
“I tried a bunch of different things, and that was really helpful,” she says. She interned at Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah, Washington, and at the High Desert Museum in Bend. At OSU, she worked for the general biology lab series, assisting in setting up labs for classes.
“I think college students feel the pressure to know what they want to do, to have this grand plan for the rest of their lives,” she says. “I don’t think you need that. I think college is about trying different things and figuring out what you like and what you don’t like. Applying for everything, trying everything. If you find out something you don’t like, that’s just as valuable as finding out something that you do.”
Cheetahs in Namibia
It wasn’t until Cordell’s junior year that she identified what she was most interested in. This time, a two-month internship took her to Namibia in southern Africa, to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. “I got to work with the cheetahs ... and learn about the different methods they use in their conservation efforts,” she says. “That was an incredible experience and really valuable to help me realize I wanted to be in wildlife conservation. I didn’t just want to work with animals.”
“Apply to absolutely everything, even if you don’t feel qualified for something. But you really want it, apply anyway”
Though she loves to travel, Cordell discovered her contentment rests more on what she is doing, not where she is doing it. As she ventured into various animal-related arenas during college, Jennifer Olarra, her advisor, was her constant encourager. “I swear that woman is a big part of me getting through college,” Cordell says. “She was always available to help. She would listen to what I was interested in and help me figure it out. She didn’t ever make me feel like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.”
With a friendship that has grown along the journey, Cordell still reaches out to Olarra on occasion for advice.
Six months of applications
Cordell moved home after graduation, working at PetSmart, saving money – and sending off application after application. “I was applying to a bunch of different internships and job opportunities,” she says.
“Apply to absolutely everything,” Cordell advises graduates. “Make it clear why you want the job or why you are valuable to them. Having all the necessary qualifications isn’t necessarily going to be a game-changer. So even if you don’t feel qualified for something, but you really want it, apply anyway.”
Six months into her placeholder career at PetSmart, Cordell was accepted to an internship at Safari West in their hoofstock department, working with keepers who take care of large African animals.
“When they asked me about my experience, I told them I didn’t have experience with any of those animals, but that was why I wanted the internship – to gain new experience and expand my own knowledge. And I think that can be really valuable to an employer, admitting you want to learn new things.”
Cordell easily lists 20 animals she worked with at Safari West: wildebeest, gemsbok, nyala, addax, and bongo – not to mention the red river hogs, warthogs, Cape buffalo, and even rhinos. Plus a few birds: ostrich, crane and storks.
Because Safari West uses free contact with their animals – meaning keepers enter animal enclosures to feed and care for the animals, methods of training the animals continually evolve, particularly approaches to feeding that are safe for both the animals and the humans.
Animals under human care often live longer than those in the wild, creating challenges that Cordell and other zoologists resolve with training unique to the issues. Cordell helped train one pair of hogs to step on a scale – one important facet of monitoring the animals’ health – and she helped train giraffes in step-up behavior, to trim their hooves, which do not wear down as quickly as in the wild.
Training the animals, not for tricks but for the sake of keeping the animals healthy and the keepers safe, is what Cordell most enjoyed and considers a large part of her success at Safari West. “If something isn’t working, you don’t try and force it,” she says. “You don’t want to put yourself or the animal in an unsafe situation. You leave and you rethink the situation, and you figure out what might need to work differently.” Training is always a collaborative effort, as she and other workers brainstormed how to solve the challenges.
“The more time we spend with them, the more enriching it is [for the animals], the more they get to use their brains,” she says. “That was really satisfying … a really good feeling, to work toward a behavior like that and see it come to fruition.”