How woman-owned wildlife education company is making comeback post-pandemic

When it comes to assessing the pandemic’s mayhem for certain businesses, and measuring the strength of their later bounceback, that’s often been a pulse-check on retailers, restaurants, hotels and other travel and entertainment firms.

Add wildlife education companies to the list, Samantha Slevens might advise.

She runs one of those in New Jersey, Zoophoria. And, if you want to know the difficulty of keeping large Burmese pythons fed with two rabbits a month when no one is booking in-person events, Slevens can tell you all about it.

“That was a really hard time for all of us,” she said. “Despite the fact that no one (in wildlife education) had work, we still had 50-some animals looking at us, expecting to eat. And the food they eat is very expensive. I know three or four businesses that closed during the pandemic for that reason.”

She adds that it was impossible to get state aid to pay for expenses such as food and electricity bills — often pricey for the specialized ultraviolet lighting, heat and humidity control for animals such as reptiles — during that time. And there’s no specific state aid allocated to wildlife education programs in the Garden State (something made available only to state zoos), a fact which Slevens hopes will one day change.

“So, until things picked up around 2022, a lot of companies really struggled,” she said. “People had to sell their animals, it was devastating — especially because we’re not just talking about products, but animals we have connections to. It was really sad.”

Zoophoria is one of the businesses out in the community — at schools, libraries, campgrounds, special needs programs and senior centers — providing people with memorable experiences with animals while teaching them about critters. Often that involves a lot of people touching the same animal, a no-no during pandemic protocols.

It was an awkward time for these organizations. But, with any luck, they — like many industries hit hard by COVID — have come roaring back.

That’s good news for Slevens, who couldn’t imagine herself not being in what she admits is a somewhat unusual career field.

She has always had a love for animals, which started with a fascination with reptiles growing up.

“I felt they were adorable; most people thought they were terrifying,” she said. “I never had that fear reaction to them, although I always respect their power and their ability to get aggressive if they want to.”

After working for another wildlife education company and pursuing a degree in zoology, Slevens launched Zoophoria, her own enterprise. Through the business, she tours New Jersey with a rotating batch of education and art programs centered around live demonstrations of animals.

“I try to change things up and appeal to different crowds,” she said. “I want to make sure that each time people are seeing me, they’re experiencing something different. These animals are actually my pets, so I do have a limited amount.”

Her use of “limited” there is relative. She has about 40 pets she cycles through during presentations, running the gamut from the exotic Salami, a Blue-Tongued Skink, to the on-the-nose Ew and Gross, her pair of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.

And she’s looking to add more animals after recently building an outdoor shed to house them. She plans on procuring a chinchilla, pigeons and an alligator. In case the idea of a giant alligator as a next-door neighbor brings some anxiety: These creatures require permits and still have to be moved to an out-of-state location after reaching more than 5 feet.

Her business is also in the market for a van with a wheelchair-accessible chairlift to lug around animals, including a 60-pound endangered sulcata tortoise that, at the tender age of almost 30 years old, might put on another 100-plus pounds still.

Between birthday parties and other events that Slevens hasn’t done a lot of yet in North Bergen and the other parts of the state she visits, the potential to grow Zoophoria is there.

But, as the daughter of a teacher, the educational programs are always going to remain her main focus, even as more post-pandemic opportunities arise.

As Slevens watches kids reach timid fingers out for maybe their first time stroking a snake’s scales, it’s about much more than eliciting a gross-out factor for her. It’s a chance for kids to connect in a deeper way with their world.

“They touch them and look into their eyes, they can also see my love and passion for them, and it makes something like environmental issues much more tangible,” she said. “I can say, with my frog named Hamburger, a lot of this species of frog is being poisoned by the improper disposal of chemicals.

“People can connect with that. It becomes more real, and not just something happening on the other side of the planet.”

Lights! Camera! Action!

Behind the scenes, someone is feeding, directing and otherwise pampering the action movie star that falls into a pit of vipers during a film’s climax. Someone like Samantha Slevens is doing the same thing … for the vipers.

Outside of her wildlife education company work, Slevens is a part-time animal wrangler for the growing local television and movie production industry. Right now, it’s something she does for a company that’s separate from her own, but she’s working to secure the permits that would let her take on these jobs through her own business.

“For example, if we have birds on set, we have to make sure they’re doing what they have to in the scene, which could involve using creative methods to keep animals in the same position or get them to fly,” she said. “Once we do that, we have to make sure the Humane Society is happy by making sure no one is using atmospheric smoke or anything that could harm an animal on the set. We’re a liaison between them and the directors, actors and others involved (in the production).”

One of the trickiest aspects of the job is managing all the equipment on film sets, which might include fish or reptiles, healthy and comfortable.

Doing all that while also upholding the movie magic that makes what audiences are seeing on screens believable presents interesting challenges for animal wranglers.

“I did one program where I had to train 40 hamsters to make it look like they were in a nightclub,” Slevens said. “I had to make clothing and train them to wear it — using a lot of treats. I had to use a toilet paper roll to get them into the outfits. They’d enter it and step out the other side into the costume. We called it the ‘hamster cannon.’ That was really fun.”

Coincidentally, Slevens adds that actors also tend to be the best suited to jobs entertaining crowds during wildlife education events.

“It might sound strange, but it’s important that you can put on a fun and energetic show and that you’re not just doing a program in which you’re reading off facts,” she said. “You have to reel people into the knowledge components by making it fun, making jokes and generally having public speaking skills.”