Have you ever heard of a gutter cat?
Craig Saffoe, Curator of Great Cats, Andean Bears, and Kids’ Farm at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo he recounts childhood memories of exploring his neighborhood with friends, searching storm drains for balls, and finally discovering that cats lived in them—”sewer cats,” as he called them.
Craig grew up in North Carolina on the Fort Bragg military base and, as most young children do when they see a homeless animal, Craig began feeding one of these stray cats. Although his mother was not a fan of adopting a stray cat, Craig insisted, eventually directing her to find a vet to give the cat proper medical attention. Craig was connected with a local vet named Dr. Robert Tygh, who encouraged Craig’s curiosities and involved him in the decision to have his cat spayed. In retrospect, Craig’s mother and Dr. Tygh were memorable professional role models who guided his first impactful decision in animal management.
Although Craig mentions that “passion can be fleeting sometimes,” for him it wasn’t. This was just the first step in a long career in animal management.
Once she graduated from high school and moved to North Carolina to attend college, she needed to turn her passion into a college degree. Like many who enjoy working with animals, his first thought is to enter vet school, and Craig was no different. However, a course he took, farm animal anatomy and physiology taught by Dr. Brenda Alston-Mills, brought Craig to a crossroads in his academic career. Craig credits Dr. Alston-Mills for being his first professional mentor who had such a profound impact when she helped him realize her love of animal husbandry rather than continuing down the path of veterinary medicine. Craig remembers one particular conversation with Dr. Alston-Mills after class in which she asked him why he was a student in her class and why he wanted to be a vet. He says it was something like:
“I understand that you love animals, I understand that you want to be a vet, but do you love medicine?” I said “no” and she said, “Then honey, you’re going to be the worst vet in the world.”
And that was that. Dr. Alston-Mills gave Craig more information about the possibilities of a career in animal husbandry. Fortunately for Craig, Dr. Alston-Mills had connections and knowledge of opportunities that would allow Craig to cultivate his passion. Dr. Alston-Mills encouraged Craig to apply for an internship through the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park that would give him real-world experience. In the months that followed, Craig was also connected to an animal care center in Pittsboro, North Carolina, which confiscated large and exotic animals, primarily large cats. “They had tigers. They had Jaguars. They had snow leopards. All of that had been taken from private property.” Craig volunteered there for several months, which strengthened his love for big cats. This fascination with big cats was later channeled into Craig’s Smithsonian internship application, but it turned out that he had accidentally applied for an internship in the zoo’s graphics department. As fate would have it, the woman who first received the application, Melissa Gaulding, reached out to inform Craig that a new Cheetah Conservation Station was being built at the National Zoo headed by Dr. John Seidensticker, and she told him I would submit your application. This was Dr. John Seidensticker, author of Great Cats (Majestic Creatures of the Wild), which Craig had already read cover to cover several times and considered the “bible” of big cats!
The next thing he knew, Craig had joined forces with Dr. Seidensticker and started an internship project to track down feral cats at the zoo. One of the purposes of this project was to map the territories of these feral cats, which is significant because cats can be vectors of diseases from a parasite called toxoplasmosis (a parasite that is deadly to some species, such as kangaroos, but humans they know it mostly as the reason pregnant women are advised not to clean the litter box). While doing this internship project, Craig also had the opportunity to learn about real life animal husbandry at the Cheetah Conservation Station with a biologist named Stuart Wells. It was a dream internship. Craig revealed that Stuart was also a black man, which in a way showed the foresight Dr. Seidensticker had in pairing Craig with a potential role model who could bring a more immediate sense of belonging. And Stuart became another powerful mentor in Craig’s life and career.
Woven in and out of the conversation with Craig was the importance of inclusion and representation. Although he acknowledges that not many people looked like him at the zoo, or at NC State, since it was a PWI (predominantly white institution), he was lucky to have had the opportunity to be mentored by people who looked like him. Craig’s union with Stewart was especially impactful because 30 years later, diversity in the zoo’s workforce still needs to be improved. Craig explained that the zoo tries to carry out the same intent of matching interns with mentors that make sense and where the intern is most likely to succeed.
So, then and even more so now, Craig understands that giving a 19-year-old black student the opportunity to work at the Smithsonian doesn’t always happen, but it’s an important reminder to continue efforts to increase diversity. Craig later founded the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP), a network of professionals currently working in exotic animal care and conservation disciplines focused on increasing minority representation in the zoo and aquarium industry. . One of Craig’s goals was to ensure that minority professionals and students had the opportunity to participate in professional interests within the animal management and conservation community.
On the topic of diversity in the workforce, Craig states that “if we want to see the greatest representation of ideas, thoughts, and expansion of knowledge, that’s where diversity really matters, because if you only look through a singular lens, you just You’re going to get that perspective. When you start bringing in these people from diverse backgrounds, you get other lived experiences, which means you get more insights. And not more ideas to take over, but more ideas to include in that possible solution. And when you’re dealing with a topic like conservation, you need as many ideas as you can because, oh my gosh, we don’t know what the recipe for success is… It’s about opening the door for fair competition. and equal opportunity so that everyone can compete for the positions they are passionate about”.
When asked how his career path might have been different if he hadn’t had the Smithsonian internship: “I think I probably would have gone back to finish school. He would undoubtedly have taken a job somewhere, and if it hadn’t been for Dr. Alston-Mills, he wouldn’t have known what animal husbandry was or which way to go. So I think if the Smithsonian and the zoo hadn’t shown me this particular discipline and this route to focus on, I very well might have gone back to finish veterinary medicine and I honestly think I would have been a very unhappy vet.”
And what a full circle moment it was when he told us that as a lion and tiger healer he is now in the same position and even in the same office as his mentor Dr. Seidensticker!
As Craig recounted these experiences, he remained grateful for Dr. Alston-Mills, Melissa Gaulding, and the series of people throughout his life, people who had no reason to care about this boy who had a cat in the sewer or this boy that he was sitting in a sewer. class among the hundreds of other students and countless other potential interns passing by. So why did these people take the time to impart little bits of wisdom, knowledge, and open the door to these experiences? Craig continues to count these blessings and they serve as reminders to help open the door for that bubbly-faced fellow who very well could be a future big cat curator.