Cage diving with great white sharks. Swimming alongside humpback whales. Getting close to lions and leopards on an African safari.
It sounds like a nature TV show, but it’s not. It’s how Nikki Maticic ’14 spent one summer break as a Mary Washington student.
Now she cares for lions, tigers and Andean bears – oh, my! – as well as farm animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Her dream job as an animal keeper became a reality thanks to a UMW biology degree and study abroad trips to South Africa and the Galápagos Islands.
The Leesburg, Virginia, native grew up surrounded by pets – dogs, cats, fish and hamsters, as well as non-living ones. “I had a doctor’s bag filled with fake syringes, bandages, blood pressure cuffs and a stethoscope for treating my stuffed animals,” she said.
By the time she came to Mary Washington, Maticic’s fascination with all things with fur, fins or feathers was in full force. She majored in biology and minored in Spanish, taking courses in animal behavior, anatomy, ecology and evolution, and served as secretary and president of the Biology Club.
“Nikki was always passionate about protecting animals,” said Biology Professor Andrew Dolby, who taught Maticic in a class that went to the Galápagos Islands during spring break. “We learned about the impact of illegal finning on shark populations, and she decided to pursue further research and present on the topic,” Dolby said, adding that Maticic is a gifted wildlife photographer.
On that trip, Maticic studied sustainability and met with conservationists working to preserve creatures and their habitats.
“We hiked alongside volcanoes and snorkeled with sea lions and tortoises,” she said. “I still remember the excitement I felt when we discovered an animal perched in a tree or swimming in a cove.”
In South Africa, she took a summer course on the continent’s “ultimate predators,” spending a month diving with sharks, swimming with whales, and tracking the movements and health of animals at a wildlife reserve.
“On our nighttime safaris, I felt complete awe watching a lion drink from a watering hole and a mother leopard crouch in the trees with her cubs,” she said. “Sitting around a campfire and hearing elephants, hyenas and lions all around us is something I’ll never forget.”
Visiting biodiverse regions prepared Maticic to pursue a zoology career and land jobs at the Wildlife Center of Virginia and Leesburg Animal Park.
Now, at the National Zoo, she feeds, provides enrichment and training, and cleans habitats for over 50 mammals, using skills she acquired at UMW – writing lab reports, logging field notes, and observing animals and their behaviors. She’s also represented the zoo on a global level with a trip to Paraguay, where she led a training in Spanish and worked with ocelots, jaguars, macaws and pumas.
Through school visits, keeper chats and Friends of the National Zoo events, Maticic uses her expertise to educate others on wildlife preservation and making safe choices when observing animals while traveling.
She hopes that by sharing her study abroad experiences of seeing these creatures in their native environments, she’ll inspire young zoo visitors to pursue their own studies in animal conservation.
“Watching animals in the wild only increased my passion.”
In celebration of International Education Week 2019, Nov. 18 to 22, UMW shares stories of students who have studied abroad. One in three Mary Washington students volunteers, interns, conducts research, or joins a faculty-led trip or other UMW-approved experience outside the United States, according to Center for International Education (CIE) Director Jose Sainz. Visit CIE or call (540) 654-1434 for more information.