Zookeeping all in the family for mom, daughter

Katie Garagarza, left, a senior zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and her mom, Jane Kennedy, right, a lead zookeeper at the park, feed "Chuck," a 48-year-old southern white rhino. (Howard Lipin/Union-Tribune)
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mother’s Day is usually a time when moms and their children get together to reminisce over brunch and flowers or maybe a long-distance phone call. But for mother-daughter zookeepers Jane Kennedy and Katie Garagarza, every day is cause for celebration.

The two Escondido women have worked together at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for 21 years, after Garagarza decided to follow in her mother’s well-worn footsteps. Kennedy, 59, is one of the park’s lead zookeepers and is known as the “Rhino lady” for her decades of devotion to saving the critically endangered African species. Garagarza, who at 37 is a senior zookeeper and has spent more than half her life working in the San Pasqual Valley animal park, most recently with Australian mammals.

Besides the family connection the women are also close friends, colleagues, animal experts and passionate conservationists.

“Working together has made our relationship much deeper than just a regular mother-daughter thing,” Garagarza said. “We have so much more in common and we can bounce ideas off each other.”

The two don’t work in the same department, but they do cross paths every day and are frequently together in their off hours spending time with Garagarza’s three children: Sofia, 7, Tomas, 5, and Elena, who will soon turn 4.

“I’m very proud of who she is, what she’s become and what she’s doing with her life,” Kennedy said of Garagarza, who’s a single mom. “She’s a great mother and role model for her children. And I’m impressed by her dedication to conservation of all these species that are in such desperate need of our help.”

Another of the park’s longtime employees, associate nutritionist Michele Gaffney, said she’s enjoyed watching Garagarza grow from girlhood to motherhood at the park.

“I have spent a lot of time with both Jane and Katie over the last 30-plus years and have watched their relationship grow and deepen,” Gaffney said. “Katie definitely possesses the same passion and dedication for the animals here at the park, just like her mom.”

Kennedy’s connection with the zoo began a half-century ago, when the L.A. native visited the San Diego Zoo with her parents when she was 9 years old. “That day I told my mom that when I grow up I’m going to work at the zoo.”

It took a little extra time to achieve her goal because when she turned 18 she married her sweetheart, Ed Kennedy. Both had overcome difficult childhoods and vowed to forge a permanent future together. After a few years on the East Coast, they moved in 1979 to San Diego, where Ed worked in the Navy’s submarine corps. For the first few years in San Diego, Kennedy was busy raising their son Christopher, who’s now 39 and lives in Boise, Idaho, with his family, and Katie, who was born shortly after their move here.

In 1983, Kennedy was able to fulfill her dream by landing a job in food service at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (which was renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2010). Within a year, she transferred into animal care and has worked with every species in the park over the past 33 years.

Garagarza said the park has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. When she was 4 years old, her mom brought her and her brother to the park’s animal nursery to bottle-feed baby wisent (European bison), rhinoceros and zebras.

“I knew that what we got to do was pretty special and it was really fun,” she said.

At age 14, she spent a day at the park for Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Then at age 15, she started working there as a summer job, setting up tents for campers in the Roar & Snore program. At first, Garagarza said she wasn’t excited by the heavy physical work, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to make a career in the park. But Kennedy knew her daughter had a natural affinity for animals. Growing up, Katie enjoyed playing with stuffed animals and took good care of the family’s pets, which included dogs, cats, birds and chinchillas.

“I think passion is contagious. If you’re around other people and you’re passionate about what you do, it rubs off.” - Zookeeper Jane Kennedy whose daughter also is a zookeeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was in high school,” Garagarza said. “I wanted to be myself and find my own identity. Then in my senior year, I realized this was the path I wanted. Having my mother here helped. Seeing her at work and all the fun things she got to do, it looked like a lot of fun.”

Kennedy said she never pushed her daughter to make a career at the park, but she didn’t discourage her, either, because the conservation work they’re doing is so significant.

“I’d like to believe I had some influence in that I loved my life and tried to be a good role model,” Kennedy said. “I think passion is contagious. If you’re around other people and you’re passionate about what you do, it rubs off.”

After starting out in the campers program, Garagarza worked as a walking tour guide, then she worked in the children’s petting kraal. In 2004, she was promoted to a zookeeper position at the Lion Camp exhibition. In 2007, she moved to the Village area with gorillas, bonobos, wild pigs and hoofed animals.

Then she worked for a few years in the South African area of the large field enclosure, which is home to rhinos, gemsbok, sable antelopes and more. In January, she transferred to the staging ground for the Australian Walkabout exhibit that will open next year. She’s helping set up an animal quarantine area for animals that will populate the new exhibit, including five female Bennett’s wallabies that arrived three weeks ago from a zoo in Chicago.

Kennedy transferred out of the South African field area last year to move to the park’s cheetah breeding center. Because mother and daughter work with different species from different parts of the world, they carefully avoid close contact during work hours to avoid cross-contaminating the animals with foreign germs.

In all their years at the park together, Kennedy said her favorite and most poignant memory with her daughter was in 2015 when they both worked in the South Africa field area. Kennedy, who is the president of the International Rhino Keepers Association, has dedicated years of care to the park’s population of endangered rhinoceros species, including eastern black and southern white rhinos. She was also lead keeper for Nola, a 41-year-old female, who was one of just four Northern white rhinos left in the world.

By early November 2015, Nola was suffering from a bacterial infection and age-related health issues and park medical staff knew she was dying. In Nola’s final days, Kennedy and her fellow keepers were on 24-hour watch with Nola. After weeks of overnight shifts, she was mentally and physically exhausted. So on Nov. 21, Garagarza insisted on taking Kennedy’s midnight shift so she could get some sleep. Around 1:30 a.m., Nola began to struggle and park medical staff made the decision to euthanize her.

Kennedy was sad she wasn’t there to say goodbye to Nola, but in retrospect she’s grateful her daughter stepped in. She believes that she and Nola were holding on for each other and by going home that night at her daughter’s insistence, they were both able to let go.

“Katie stepped in for me and for Nola,” Kennedy said. “Katie has always been there for me. I adore my daughter.”

Kennedy plans to wind down her career at the cheetah breeding center, with the goal of retiring at age 62. Then she and Ed are planning to move to a cabin they own on Lake Arrowhead.

She’s happy that her daughter will carry on their family passion for conservation. And as for those footsteps? They might one day be filled by Garagarza’s children, who are all avid park visitors.

“I would be very proud if my children followed in my footsteps,” Garagarza said. “They have a good base of knowledge to spread the conservation message and they truly care about animals.”