In his 24-year career, Bert Castro has traveled across the country and the world to further his goal of wildlife conservation and protection.
“Last year, 175 million people visited zoos and aquariums,” said Castro, 1992 graduate of the Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) program. “These are really cultural institutions, and I love teaching people about the natural world and how to conserve it.”
Castro’s wildlife career started when he was a keeper at the Tulsa Zoo. While working at the zoo, he made a three-hour weekly commute to Wichita to attend classes and a practicum at Sedgwick County Zoo. Despite the miles he put on his car, Castro knew that Friends University’s MSES program offered the educational experience he wanted.
“It’s a worthwhile program that really helped my career,” Castro said. “The reason I chose Friends was that it had a curriculum and practicum (at Sedgwick County Zoo) that really interested me because it matched my career goals. At that time I’d only worked at one zoo, and I wanted to get some practical experience at a different zoo. That was wonderful working under Mark Reed (president of the Sedgwick County Zoo), who is still a mentor and close friend to me, as well as a leader in the industry.”
Castro also said that while the classes were small, there was also a professional diversity among the students in his cohort.
“It was really a wonderful learning experience,” Castro said. “MSES people came from different work backgrounds and helped prepare me for different jobs. I enjoyed that it was a cohort program, so we really got to know people, and we got to learn the theoretical and practical applications of learning in the real world. Not only was it a good learning experience, but also a good practical experience.”
Castro took that experience with him as he traveled through the United States and beyond to share his message of conservation. After graduating, he took a job as an assistant director at the Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans. From there, he worked as curator of mammals and birds at Zoo Atlanta, then as general curator at the San Antonio Zoo. He then headed back to Oklahoma to work as executive director of the Oklahoma City Zoo, which led him to his current position of president of the Phoenix Zoo.
While he was working at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Castro says one of his most rewarding experiences was supporting a zoo in Zimbabwe – Chipangali Wildlife Center – in doing some work in a national park.
“They were doing a release program with leopards and hyenas,” Castro explained. “In national parks, some of the animals get out occasionally and kill livestock. The center was doing a program to help educate ranchers. Instead of killing the animals, Chipangali officials were asking that the ranchers contact them, and they would deal with the animals. It was a good program to go over and be involved with that.”
Though Castro has seemed to reach the pinnacle of his career, he said he will continue to pursue his goals of conservation and protection.
“There’s a lot of intrinsic value in the zoo field,” he said. “I see it as a noble profession that helps preserve natural resources, to be a good steward of our world. Being in the position that allows me to give a little back to the community, do a little something toward the overall goals of zoos and aquariums … I couldn’t pick another job that I wanted to do. I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m grateful to be involved in this noble work.”