Ventura woman trying to keep wildlife teaching program alive

As published in the Ventura County Star newspaper
By: Rachel McGrath

A Ventura woman with a passion for animals and green living is struggling to keep afloat a nonprofit group that offers wildlife and environmental education programs.

Carrie Sylvester, 35, founded Zootopia in April 2008 to offer programs educating children and families about animals and the natural environment.

“Our goal is to have people re-evaluate how they do things as humans and their impact on the planet,” she said. “We teach them why each animal is important, even bugs, and how the ecosystems fit together and make the planet work. Then we talk about green living and the sorts of things you can do at home to reduce your footprint.”

Sylvester, who grew up in Ventura in a home filled with an assortment of pets, said it’s been her dream since the age of 16 to be a wildlife educator.

After getting associate degrees in veterinary nursing and zookeeping, wildlife education and animal training, she spent a summer working at the Junior Safari summer camp at America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College. She discovered she loved working with children and wanted to share her passions for animals and the environment with them, she said.

“I didn’t find anyone who was providing the curriculum I wanted to provide,” she said. “And I wanted to provide it all year long and not just at a seasonal camp, so I started Zootopia.”

Sylvester acknowledges her timing was not the best, setting up a nonprofit group just as the recession began to hit. But she persevered with the help of a small team of supporters and volunteers and began offering programs for schools, the California State Parks system, the Ventura Unified School District’s Open Classroom program, community events and private birthday parties.

During her presentations, children get to hold and interact with small animals and take part in nature-themed craft projects and activities.

The animals’ upkeep and teaching supplies are paid for through donations, Sylvester said.

“This is a complete labor of love,” she said. “There is no staff. It’s run purely by volunteers, including myself.

“Our big goal for the coming year is to find funding. Beyond that, our goal is to have a property that’s an educational facility with overnight camping and the ability to have more and bigger animals.”

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