Who: Christina Castellano
What: Vice President & Chief Science Officer, Utah’s Hogle Zoo
Where: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Jordan Gray: What is your earliest childhood memory with a turtle or tortoise?
Christina Castellano: I was born in the Bronx and grew up just north of Manhattan. Like most city dwellers, my love of animals started with our very own family pets. I was actually a late bloomer when it came to turtles. My earliest turtle memories are from about 20 years ago when I started working in the Reptile Department at the Bronx Zoo. My first assignment was to collect temperature data from weather stations in Madagascar that would help us set husbandry and breeding guidelines for Flat-tailed (Pyxis planicauda) and Spider Tortoises (Pyxis arachnoides) in the Reptile House. And that’s simply how a lifetime spent with turtles and an obsession with Madagascar began!
JG: How did you first become involved in turtle and tortoise conservation?
CC: I spent a lot of time volunteering on different wildlife conservation programs while working at the Bronx Zoo, but my first experience really driving a conservation program for turtles was when I started my graduate research on North American Wood Turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This was the place and time, when I really learned the joy of fieldwork: observing and collecting data on wild animals, and then using what we learned to develop conservation actions for threatened species. Getting to know these wonderful creatures on such a personal level was fun, rewarding, and magical!
JG: What is your favorite species of turtle or tortoise to work with?
CC: I absolutely loved working with Wood Turtles. I still miss spending entire days walking up and down stream banks wondering what I was going to find next! I even loved living in soaking wet shoes and socks for three years straight! But now it’s all about Madagascar, truly because it needs to be. It’s such a challenging place to work; there are so many things that need to be done and the future there is so uncertain, not just for tortoises, but for people too. Nevertheless, nothing provides greater motivation than being in the spiny forest at the start of a late afternoon rain, or in the early evening when the air starts to cool, and then suddenly – and out of nowhere – being surrounded by one of the world’s most beautiful creatures, the Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata). It’s enough to keep you going and certainly makes you never willing to give up!
JG: What is your favorite aspect of working at a zoological park?
CC: I have been so tremendously lucky to have spent my professional life working in zoos. One of the things that I love most about it is that I always feel like I’m part of a very special team of people. These people have pretty much dedicated their lives to each individual animal under their care, while also working to make the world a safer place for wildlife. And that’s exactly what I enjoy most about my job: spending time with great people that share my passion for ensuring positive welfare for the animals that live at our zoo, while building conservation programs that can help save animals in the wild.
JG: Tell us about your most memorable travel experience that involved chelonians?
CC: Every trip to Madagascar to work with Radiated Tortoises becomes one of my most memorable! It’s always something – unpredictable, magical, back-breaking, inspiring, hilarious, and even sometimes death-defying! In addition to having the most memorable experiences with tortoises, I’ve also made the most amazing life-long friends on these incredible journeys.
JG: What attracted you to become part of the Turtle Survival Alliance?
CC: The amazing life-long friends that I just mentioned above! The people of TSA are all cut from the same cloth; we love turtles and are fully dedicated to making sure that we don’t lose them! The camaraderie, ability to learn from each other’s work, and sense of belonging makes the TSA unlike any other organization. And, together we get stuff done!
JG: What advice would you give to an aspiring chelonian conservationist?
CC: Do it, do it, do it! Take the road less traveled; you won’t regret it for a second!