by Liz Daube
Delfi Messinger’s itinerary for a Wednesday afternoon: Oversee the fitting of a new tusk cap for an elephant; check out the birth of a tiny South American deer; make sure an infant African pygmy goat is comfortable — among many other things.
As director of animal programs for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Messinger is responsible for managing all the people who take care of the zoo’s animals. Sometimes, she spends most of her day in meetings about a variety of concerns: conservation initiatives, coordinating veterinary care, animal permits. On other days, she rides around the zoo in a golf cart, observing the animals and talking with the curators, handlers and veterinarians.
“These people are all specialists,” said Messinger. “I just kind of tap in and make sure everything’s going according to plan.”
She came to Jacksonville last September from a smaller zoo in Kansas, so Messinger said she’s still adjusting to her new job and getting familiar with the area.
“It’s so much bigger,” said Messinger. “Here, we have a gardening department. Where I came from, if we needed to plant a tree, one of the keepers went and planted it.”
She has a broad range of experience. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in animal science and zoo jobs, Messinger spent 14 years in the area once known as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She joined the Peace Corps, learned French, taught veterinary classes, worked with bonobo monkeys, studied monkey pox with the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and started an illustrated children’s magazine before civil war forced her to return to the United States in 1998.
Some of her work might be considered risky, but Messinger said she’s always been comfortable with nature.
“I think I was born with it,” said Messinger. “I’ve always been a real adventuresome person. (Being around wild animals) doesn’t scare me a bit. Now, drop me in the middle of New York City...”
Admittedly, she has her fears. Advancing technology and urban environments bother her, Messinger said, and she worries about the effects of people becoming disconnected from the natural environment.
“We really have moved to a culture that has lost its root in animals,” said Messinger. “I hate to see it. I see us losing important things, being so dependent on machines and not on ourselves. Kids don’t even go outside and play anymore.”
Messinger’s job often requires her to sit behind a desk rather than wander the outdoors, but she said she’s always in tune with the people and animals in the zoo.
“If a real important animal gets sick at night, they will call me at home,” said Messinger. “(But) I really enjoy people management. I’m an animal person, but the real challenge is the people.”