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Alumni Spotlight: Matt James' Work At Zoo Miami Includes the Business of Animal Care

By Tyler McConnell

Matt James

TAMPA (May 22, 2018) -- Caring and treating animals is part of the everyday challenges for a zoo keeper and bringing a six-ton elephant to Florida from 10,000 miles away presents a unique set of obstacles. It's a challenge that Zoo Miami's Matt James, animal science division chief – and Muma College of Business MBA graduate – met recently as part of his job.

The mission, which took place at the end of April, is a part of the zoo's global sustainability program, and James and his staff endured 24 hours of flight time to make it possible. The 7-year-old elephant named Ong'ard was born at the Melbourne Zoo as part of the Australian breeding program for Asian elephants. The pachyderm came to the United States to introduce new genes into the U.S. breeding program. Though the trip was exhausting, James said it was a great accomplishment for the zoo.

To make this happen, the elephant had to undergo training to enter and feel comfortable in the specifically designed steel crate, which was lifted by crane and placed on the flatbed of a semi-truck for the trip to the airport. Another crane hoisted the crate onto a scissor lift, which then positioned the crate into the belly of the plane. The elephant did not require an oxygen mask or sedation during the process, James said.

"There is little training you can do to prepare an elephant for an experience like this so we rely on those trust-based relationships to help keep the elephant calm during these very new experiences," James said. "From the moment the elephant was placed on the plane the animal-care team was very attentive to his needs and the keepers with the relationship with the Ong'ard attended to him as needed. But there are no other precautions you can really take."

This is all a part of James' deep passion for animal care. He attended Doane College, a small liberal arts school in Nebraska, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry.

While in school, James found an internship opportunity with Miami Seaquarium. He turned that opportunity into a paid internship and within months he was working with dolphins, sea lions and even a killer whale. This led him to a job as a dolphin trainer at Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine.

He now finds himself at Zoo Miami where he has been for the last four-and-a-half years. While animal care has been his career, another area of work has sparked his interest: business.

"When I got to Zoo Miami, a lot of times I found myself in meetings where the business side was presented," he said. "They say the animal side doesn't see the business side, I wanted to see the business side."

It was this desire that led him to pursue his MBA at the University of South Florida. It was not an easy process, as he was forced to commute from Miami to Tampa for the weekend program. He graduated in 2015, and noticed the impact early on.

"The MBA helped immediately," he said. "I could apply the basics and speak to the business side. It has been a rewarding experience and has allowed growth as a personnel manager."

James has used what he has learned to immediately impact his short-term goals.

Long-term: He hopes to run a zoo.

"I have a very distinct vision with the zoo, I want to tap into its potential," he said. "I am eager to take over a zoo, whether it would be Miami or somewhere else."

Though it would be years down the line, James feels he will be prepared for the challenge, knowing he has a better understanding of what it would take to achieve success on the business side.

James feels that his experience, combined with business understanding positions him for this lofty goal. His message to others in a non-business line of work is simple: Get out of the box.

"Take chances and give MBA a try," he said. "If you're thinking about it, you've already made that decision."