When Chris Hitchener answered the phone in his office at Roger Williams Park Zoo, he was being pestered. But the source was not a boss or a colleague; it was Vincent, the zoo’s education Parma wallaby. “Vincent is one of the few endangered species in our education animal collection,” laughs Hitchener, brushing the six-pound marsupial off his leg. “He hangs out with me during the day; he needs to be around people in order to remain sociable.”
By title, Hitchener, 30, is the zoo’s early childhood program coordinator, but he’s much more than that. Not only does he work with kids at the zoo, he also serves as director of Zoo Camp on the Move, a summer community service program and outdoor adventure camp for young adults; and he is co-director of the zoo’s Roots and Shoots club, a community service program founded by renown Harvard zoologist Jane Goodall that runs during the school year.
“I’m what you’d call a conservation liaison,” he explains. “I teach the community about local and international conservation issues the zoo and other environmental organizations participate in.”
Hitchener’s focus is on educating kids both on and off zoo grounds, from environmental activism and exploring local wildlife habitats to working with scientists, conservationists, and environmentalists on special projects. “I have a real passion for the environment,” he says. “I love science, but I have a huge interest in outdoor leadership and connecting kids with that environment.”
Hitchener, who was raised in Warwick, R.I., began working for the zoo after graduating with a B.S. in zoology. In his spare time, he also assists in critical conservation projects, helping to bring species like the Karner blue butterfly and the American burying beetle back from the brink of extinction.
“It’s great to be working with people who are doing really important science,” he says. “They’re the real heroes. Around them, I feel like I’m still in the student phase. Maybe someday I’ll be one of those people myself.”