Bonnie Van Dam, Detroit Zoo worker 2.20

Written by David Green.

Bonnie Van Dam knew when she was a high school student in Morenci that she was destined to work with animals when she grew up. She just wasn’t clear about the species.

“I actually wanted to become a marine biologist when I was in high school,” she said. “I was crazy about whales and dolphins.”

Not too many years passed before she traded fins for feathers. It happened when she got to know some penguins.

After Bonnie earned a zoology degree at Michigan State University, she was hired by the Nature Conservancy to do research for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory—a survey of native plants and animals where data is collected by traveling into woods, along the shoreline, across fields, etc.

Bonnie learned something important from that internship—she realized she wasn’t cut out for research in the field. She found a posting for a job opening at a zoo and thought that might be more to her liking.

She started working with the Detroit Zoological Society in 1994 and it was a good fit. She’s been there ever since.

Within two years, Bonnie was working as a senior zookeeper in the bird department. She worked primarily with the zoo’s penguins for five years.

Her work didn’t revolve around penguins entirely. Vultures, flamingos, storks, cranes, spoonbills—she’s become well acquainted with them all.

Along the way, Bonnie initiated the zoo’s artificial incubation and hand-rearing program. She’s had success with a variety of species ranging from hummingbirds to the Ruppell’s griffon—a vulture native to Africa.

In 2001, Bonnie was promoted to head zookeeper of the bird department and in 2006 she took another step upward, this time as associate curator of birds.

This puts her in charge of 11 other zoo employees who oversee five bird facilities housing more than 40 species...

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