With animal science degrees from the College, Laurie Macha arrived at her new Mystic Aquarium job about the same time as the penguins did. At first, the birds were aggressive toward people because they were not used to being handled. But Macha used tactile reinforcement to work cooperatively with them. Now, as Curator of Marine Mammals and Birds, she supervises the care, management and training of many animals, but penguins are her passion. Here is what she said in an interview.
What was your major in the College? When did you graduate? With what degree? I majored in animal science. I got a BS in 1987 and a MS in 1991.
What class was most useful to you? There were three, animal behavior, genetics and endocrinology, that helped most with what I do now. The classes increased my understanding of breeding and training animals.
Because domesticated animals have been studied more than wild ones, it is useful when livestock knowledge can be applied to marine mammals and birds. For example, what I learned about birds in my poultry class with Dr. Mike Darre helped me with penguin physiology. I still have my notes from that class.
Tell us some of your fond memories of UConn. I loved UConn. I remember the social aspect, like the people I met on the equestrian, vaulting and livestock judging teams and in Alpha Gamma Rho. I especially enjoyed the hands-on academics, such as reproductive physiology. I did horseshoeing and branched out from my love of horses to show a pig in the Little I. And, I learned a lot about growing up.
Please describe your current job. I am responsible for the care, management and training of beluga whales, sea lions, seals and penguins at Mystic Aquarium. I also oversee programs and the development of staff members who care for those animals.
There is a lot of physical activity and time spent outdoors to make sure that everyone has the tools and supplies they need to care for the mammals and birds. For example, I buy all the fish to feed the penguins. When we have a major snowstorm, I have to get a crew in place to stay at the aquarium and take care of the animals.
This is the first job I had out of college, and every day is a learning experience.
Are you doing what you imagined you would be doing at this point in your life? I loved animals, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated. Then, I did an internship at Mystic Aquarium as part of UConn independent study. Once I understood the response of a fur seal to my presence, I was hooked. I realized I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Do you have any advice for current students that will help them in the future? College is important, but that is not everything. The complete picture includes a strong work ethic. Students need to be willing to do any type of task in a job or internship. Then, they can go anywhere.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? Mystic Aquarium partners with the non-profit SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) in conserving African penguins. I went to Cape Town after the MV Treasure oil spill to help save oiled birds. This was the first time I washed a penguin. I have been back to South Africa several times.
Also, I helped write a collaborative manual to serve as a teaching aid for U.S. zookeepers in order to maximize their skills and assist with the conservation of penguin chicks. The manual will assist them to hit the ground running and be the most help to the staff and conservation effort in South Africa.
I have an amazing family unit, and we spend quality time together boating and fishing. Plus, my husband, son and I are all interested in different animals. My husband, David Macha, and I met at UConn while we were milking cows. Now, he works with the beef, sheep and swine in the CAHNR livestock unit. My son, who is a student at Avery Point, loves fishing and works on charter boats in the summer. And, I am passionate about penguins; they have stolen my heart.
Editor’s note: Are you an alumnus or alumna of our college? We would love to hear what you are doing now. Please contact us at CAHNRComm@uconn.edu. Your story might appear on this blog.
By Patsy Evans