Stephanie Chavez began her journey to becoming a wildlife conservationist while working towards a degree in public health.
Growing up, Stephanie Chavez focused on becoming an oral surgeon. However, while working towards a bachelor’s degree in public health, she realized her calling lay elsewhere. Because of her love for animals and nature, Stephanie considered working with animals, so she started volunteering at the San Antonio Zoo.
While working as a volunteer at the zoo, Stephanie successfully obtained an internship and, afterward, a full-time position as a zookeeper caring for many different bird species. After a few years, Stephanie decided to work as a zookeeper at the El Paso Zoo in her hometown to gain experience working with other animals such as reptiles and mammals.
As a zookeeper, Stephanie spends most of her time ensuring the health and well-being of the animals in her care.
“It’s a lot of husbandry work, which is mainly the cleaning and the feeding,” Stephanie says. “Cleaning up poop is literally what I do every day. I also give the animals enrichment, which means providing things that enrich their lives and environment. Training, also known as conditioning, is a big part of my job, specifically for vet care.”
At the El Paso Zoo, Stephanie received a promotion and became Senior Keeper for the Education Department. This transition inspired her to return to school to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife conservation and management.
Stephanie’s love for animals and El Paso led her to become a member of the board of directors for the Frontera Land Alliance and a member of the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition. Stephanie joined these organizations to help preserve the Chihuahuan Desert, focusing on outreach to encourage the city and local residents to become more involved in conservation.
Recently, the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition launched an outreach program called “Adopt an Agave.”
“We got 100 agave plants and had people come and adopt them,” Stephanie says. “They are going to babysit these baby agaves for about a year. Then, we’re going to go out and plant them out in a field. I do projects like that or lead hikes and talk about flora and fauna in the area. I love animals, and I love nature. I’m not one to say I love hikes because I really, really don’t. But I love the thought of preserving nature. So, if I can preserve nature and wildlife, flora and fauna, it’s just amazing.”
Beyond her career, Stephanie also has many animals at home, including nine birds, three turtles, a cat and a dog. She describes her animals as her “life and blood.”
Outside Stephanie’s wildlife conservation work, she is a CrossFit Athlete. Stephanie’s extremely competitive spirit led her to participate in different sports starting in high school.
“I was varsity track and field all four years,” Stephanie says. “I hit college, and I became a dancer. Something happened in my dancing career where I stopped. Zookeeping is exhausting, but I needed to find something else to keep me going as competitive as I am. Plus, I wanted to take care of myself more. I don’t eat the best, but I try. CrossFit five days a week definitely helps.”
Stephanie’s weekly CrossFit workouts include various Metcon exercises. These workouts include cardio, bench press, weightlifting, running and more.
As Stephanie strives to achieve her goals, she has encountered challenges. As a Frontera Land Alliance member and board member of the Chihuahuan Desert Coalition, she is the only nonwhite, young and female member. Plus, all the other members have many years of experience in their field. All of the above creates a highly intimidating atmosphere.
“It’s hard being a young Latina, and sometimes you don’t feel like your voice is heard, but they are very good about that, which is why they got me on the board: to get a fresh set of eyes,” Stephanie says. “How I overcame it is to have the confidence to speak my mind and share my thoughts. It can be difficult at times to have that confidence, but you have to overcome it.”
Despite the obstacles, Stephanie has received many fantastic surprises from her experiences.
“When it comes to the zookeeping world, the relationships I’ve built with my animals [are amazing],” Stephanie says. “I have a best friend who is a bird. He’s a military macaw named Festus. When it comes to the CrossFit world, being able to achieve a new weight. You see the results so fast. I did a back squat at 145 pounds a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, I did it at 175 pounds. That’s a 30-pound difference in just a couple of weeks.”
Looking to the future, Stephanie has significant goals she plans to achieve.
“My goal is to one day become a director of the zoo or at least a supervisor,” Stephanie says. “I don’t want to leave animals. I’m good at what I do and love creating relationships with animals. I also want to have a house of my own and have a bunch more animals.”
With CrossFit, Stephanie’s primary goal is weight loss.
“I’ve gained a lot of weight coming back to El Paso and home-cooked meals,” Stephanie says. “When it comes to the CrossFit world, I want to get stronger. I want to be able to compete.”
Although juggling her different roles is difficult, Stephanie keeps pushing forward and encourages others to do so, as well.
“‘She can be both’ means to me that women are powerful,” Stephanie says. “We’re such multitaskers. I don’t think I met a woman with just one role. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘I’m just a woman.’ Women are absolutely amazing, and they are so many things. They play so many roles in their lives.
“Also, I want to inspire women to vote to make an actual difference and make our voices heard. With everything that’s going on right now, it’s getting crazy. I’m a part of the LGBTQ+ community, the Latina minority and I’m a woman, so I know things are going to get really ugly. I want to inspire other women so they know they’re not alone.”