Odd Jobs: Parc Safari zoologist - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Jobs: Parc Safari zoologist

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Francis Lavigne has devoted his life to working with exotic animals like elephants.

"I spend more time with my elephants than with my girlfriend, my family, my brothers, my mother," he said. "It's part of your life. It's a way to live."

Lavigne is the elephant manager and zoological curator at Parc Safari in Quebec, a post he's held for more than a decade.

"Sometimes it's long days, but I think you got to love it. That's as simple as it is," he said.

But there's nothing simple about this odd job. As the park zoologist he cares for the herbivores and oversees a staff of more than 50 keepers.

The work starts early. Genot and Carole the elephants need to be bathed, fed and exercised before the public arrives. In fact, each species here requires hours of individualized care.

"Every day is totally different. You never know what's going to happen. It can be stressful. It can be beautiful. You never know," Lavigne said.

Earlier this month-- a very special delivery. Bonnie the giraffe has a new baby. Lavigne was by the giraffe's side every step of her 15-month pregnancy, spending overnights in the barn. His co-workers joke on delivery day he was as nervous as a new dad.

"I was at home. That was my only day off that week. I was trying to relax a little bit," Lavigne said. "I got a phone call, actually more than one phone call. All the keepers were trying to call me to tell me that it was happening!"

Luckily, Lavigne lives at the park. Safari staff opened the barn for the delivery, but the first-time mom decided she wanted to put on a show and delivered in front of dozens of cheering spectators. It's the first giraffe born at Parc Safari in 23 years!

"I've been traveling around the world seeing different institutions but I've never been part of a giraffe pregnancy, of a giraffe giving birth and being so close to that animal. I mean that's the kind of stuff... can't ask for better," he said.

It's a career that's taken Lavigne around the world. From hanging out with gorillas in Africa to camels in Egypt and Arctic wolves back at home. He studied fish and wildlife, not zoology, and says most of his experience comes from on-the-job learning.

"People who want to work with animals need to be passionate," Lavigne said. "You have to be able to travel. You have to be able to try different institutions to see what's going on out there."

Parc Safari is divided into seven sections. Lavigne designed the exhibits to mimic the wild, keeping herds together, so animals maintain a sense of family and competition.

"We always go from less dominant to more dominant," he explained.

...Taking care not to put too many dominant species together; they'll fight.

Some of the animals live here because they can't survive in the wild. Others are part of endangered species breeding programs. Lavigne says at least 40 animals are born at the park every year.

"We're managing our population, too, as a collection plan, to make sure that we don't have overpopulation of animals and we're not stuck with some animal we don't know what to do with," he said.

He works with other zoos and safaris around the globe to place species where they'll thrive. He and his staff also conduct conservation research and educate the public on the plight of these animals.

Between May and mid-October 350,000 people will visit the safari. Francis hopes the up close interaction will give them a new-found appreciation. He must also make sure the animals don't get too close. It could be dangerous for everyone involved.

Lavigne is a pretty passionate guy. One who's never really off the clock.

"Unusual hours, unusual friends, unusual girlfriend because she had to adapt to this kind of job, too. But I'm lucky enough that I have the perfect people around me to support me in this," he said.

And at home the work continues.

"I have a baby Wallaby at home and a baby fennec fox that we're taking care of because the mom was not," Lavigne said. "I mean, it's like having kids I guess. You come home you got to take care of the kids; you've got to feed them. you've got to put them to bed so to me it's the same. I don't have kids. I've got a lot of animals."

A zoologist caring for the animals of Africa in the heart of Quebec.

Lavigne says zoologists can earn anywhere between minimum wage and about $20 per hour.

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