Special Reports

A natural order

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Zoo staff biologists Michael Simmons, 25, and Elizabeth Sells, 29, plan and August wedding in Belize. They stand in an unoccupied Asian Forest Sanctuary habitat.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was surprisingly peripheral to Elizabeth Sells’ childhood.

“We came here on field trips all the time,” she said, but it wasn’t a major family destination.

Now, it’s the center of her life, right through to her heart.

Sells, who is 29 and a staff biologist in the Asian Forest Sanctuary, and Michael Simmons, 25, who is a staff biologist at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, plan to marry Aug. 6 on a beach in Belize.

That will make at least five married couples who work at the zoo.

It’s a demanding job, said Sells, and loving someone who understands that makes the relationship easier.

“It’s not the type of job that’s 9-to-5, Monday through Friday,” she said. “And if something happens, you’re here, right away.”

Sells, who grew up in Gig Harbor, and Simmons, who is from Pennsylvania, met at The Houston Zoo.

“We worked in the same department, large mammals,” Sells said. “I worked the hoof stock. He worked the carnivores. I worked the prey. He worked the predators.”

Naturally, they fell in love with each other. But Houston was a problem, with its landscape so unlike the flat-out magnificence of Washington state.

Sells’ stories of Washington and her experiences in a temporary job at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium led Simmons to apply for a job.

He came up for a temporary job, and she came up without one.

“We took the risk to better our lives,” he said.

The risk paid off. Both now have permanent positions. Granted, Point Defiance’s zoo is smaller than Houston’s.

“But it’s much more progressive,” Simmons said. “It has a great sense of professionalism. There’s great creativity involved. We can go beyond the natural history. There’s great personal value here. We have keeper talks throughout the day. People are thrilled to know the animal’s name and favorite food.”

On any given day, Simmons could be rapelling or mountain biking onto the Wild Wonders stage to introduce guests to Stella, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, with her 5-foot wing span.

“We talk with our parrots,” he said. “We ask for volunteers to test their strength against the macaws.”

The macaw always wins the nut-cracking contest, and makes the point that a bird so bent on chomping wood might not make a good housemate.

Simmons lets the show’s boa constrictor laze over his shoulders and explains the snake’s role in controlling rodent populations. Meanwhile, the zoo’s troupe of trained rats scamper down a path in the rock wall behind him. The kids go wild at that sight gag. The rats on parade are safe. Zoo boas eat special rats, flash-frozen and individually wrapped. Ratsicles.

Meanwhile, an acre away and up the hill, Sells could be training Jambi, the 751-pound tapir, to relax for medical checkups.

“He loves to be scratched,” she said. “Give him scratches, and he falls on his back. He’s a drooling, blissed-out tapir.”

“This,” said Simmons, “is where we are supposed to be.”

If you have personal stories or memories about the park you'd like to share, contact columnist Kathleen Merryman at kathleen.merryman@thenewstribune.com.