The Eclectic Life of a Zoo Mystery Author

The Eclectic Life of a Zoo Mystery Author

Written by Emilie

Topics: Guest Posts

Note from Emilie: Today I’m honoured to welcome my aunt (by choice), Ann Littlewood to Puttylike. Ann used to be a Zoo Keeper, among other things, and now she writes “zoo mysteries.” As someone obsessed with projects that take place at the intersections, I was immediately fascinated by what she was doing and asked if she would share a bit about her multiple careers over the years.

Woo! Take it away, Ann.


When I got to know Emilie and she started telling me about Puttylike, I went through the usual stages of “how could that possibly work?” “who are these people?” and ended up at “this idea is really interesting.”

Several years back, I was laid off (temporarily, it turned out) from my corporate job. The severance package included career counseling, which began with a “personal inventory” test. The counselor looked at the results with a slight frown. “I am not seeing any peaks of particular interests.” She studied the results a beat more. “It seems to be because you’re interested in everything.”

And that is what I think of when I think of Puttylike.

While Emilie is clear that this endeavor is open to all ages, I can’t help but notice that most of you are several decades younger than someone who qualifies for the senior discount. Perhaps seeing a range of possible paths through life, with the pitfalls and satisfactions of each, can be useful as you review your own options. I thought I’d share how being “interested in everything” worked out for me.

After that sheltered workshop called “college,” I set off in the direction I was supposed to go: to graduate school. Not fun and no hint that it would get better. When I had the chance to ditch it in favor of joining my boyfriend on a commune, the choice was easy. It was the ‘70s and we got to do that sort of thing.

I ran naked in the sun, learned about organic gardening, and got to know chickens and goats. The people were pretty fascinating, too. I learned lessons that came from another universe than college, lessons about tolerance, diversity, honesty, and experimentation.

But a year was enough. I ran out of patience with stoners and ran out of money. I found a job certifying people for food stamps and then welfare. God knows it was educational—another antidote to an expensive education. It was not, however, a job that offered much in the way of personal growth. I was ready to move on after a couple of years.

So I became a zoo keeper. It wasn’t easy to get there, but I persisted and it was my dream job, working in the zoo’s nursery with baby animals. We raised lion and tiger cubs, ruffed grouse, mandrill monkeys, owls, blackbuck, a hippo… Exotic animals, fun volunteers to supervise, research projects with scientific articles to write, a direct role in conservation: my college and commune skills and my passions came together.

This job provided the health insurance, essential as two babies came along. But the zoo job dwindled, the conservation focus turned out to be mostly illusory, and no new growth points survived an indifferent management. Trapped by steady pay and health insurance, I started to panic. The last four of my 12 years in that job were not pretty. All that kept me going was volunteer work with the local Audubon Society chapter, where I served on the board and learned a tremendous amount about how organizations function, a grounding that served me very well in my next act.

Which was a complete career switch to that corporate job. A prolonged, wrenching switch, to become a technical writer at a computer in a cubical. And it turned out that I was fine with that. One of the great things about “being interested in everything” is that you can enjoy, for example, accounts payable software. No, really. It’s like a puzzle or a maze… Oh, never mind.

But you might believe that there was zero overlap between the zoo job and this job, in both pluses and minuses. The new job had no connection with animals or conservation, but I liked crafting useful instructions, learned programmers are great people, and loved being appreciated. The money didn’t hurt, either. I had Little League uniforms to pay for.

Pulling it All Together

That career ended and at last I’ve figured out a way to pull all the pieces together. I write zoo mysteries. I get to go back to the parts of the zoo world that I loved—the animals and the keepers, weave in conservation issues, and have the fun of shaping a world and a story with words.

Looking back, I see that in each of my diverse jobs, I employed my interest in people, love of writing, and focus on the greater social good. Best of all, I could usually connect the work to something I was interested in. If not, I moved on.

I’ve decided my totem animal is the raccoon. A friend studied them for her master’s thesis and told me, “Everyone thinks they are really bright because they can open garbage cans and so on. They aren’t that smart—they just try everything.”

Your Turn

You, young(er) multipotentialite: What’s your totem animal and why?

Post your answer in the comments by Friday, August 10. Best answer wins an autographed copy of Endangered, my latest zoo-dunnit.

Ann Littlewood created Finley Zoo, where zoo keeper Iris Oakley uses her animal knowledge to investigate murder. These “zoo-dunnits” are grounded in Ann’s 12 year career as an animal keeper at Oregon Zoo. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with a husband and a hairy little dog. She’s active in tree-hugger organizations.


  1. Sian Stargazer says:

    my totem animal is the crow. it’s mythical origins are part tricker part healer, part wisdom bringing. & that’s who i am. i love to introduce people to new ideas & turn their belief systems on their ends!!! or melt their belief systems if possible.

    my secondary totem is the snake. snakes are symbols of healing, rebirth, & transformation.

    which leads me to my third totem. the butterfly cos its a symbol of transformation. & i love change.

  2. Agneta Åkerlund says:

    One of my totem animals is the magpie. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but in Sweden we say that magpies are drawn to things that sparkle. They look for the beauty in the world. I think this describes me very well. I am drawn to situations, ideas and people that sparkle. I am a sucker for beauty (the beauty of passion, strength, determination, humbleness, kindness, change… etc.) It is not uncommon to see me go “oooh, shiny sparkly, I want it” over a new idea, project or interest (and be completely swept away and forget about the rest for a while… until the next sparkly comes along). The magpie is also very bright and a problem solver, which is also a very good representation of me.

  3. Ann: Awesome story!!! Being a woman “of a certain age” myself, I have a long and varied career story also. But you have “zookeeper” which is a way cool one to have and mine at that period of my life was “self-employed Landscape Designer”, which I loved. Now I’m bringing together my love of science, helping people and bringing them substantive life transformation on my new business The Mindful Drawer, I haven’t launched my first coaching program yet, but once I can get some exposure for it, I *know* it can help people facing major life challenges and transitions. Plus the drawing part is way cool, so maybe I do have have that in my repertoire…

  4. Margaret Rode says:

    My totem – my spirit animal – is very definitely raven. Like raven, I am bright, resourceful and sometimes noisy, I love to learn how to use tools, I like shiny new things or ideas, I play the trickster when it serves (such as in the fable of Raven stealing the sun back – )…I’m just raven all over.

    They also seem curious about me. Now, I’m not a big woo-woo person, but from pure observation, ravens have always seemed to be unafraid of me, and will gather in their little muttering croaking groups unusually close to me, cocking an eye to watch what I’m doing.

    I would not be surprised if many multipotentialites share this, just because of raven’s multiple personalities (endless curiosity, introspection, sense of humor, love of new interests, survival mechanisms, and on and on).

  5. Margaret Rode says:

    P.S., Ann – I’m 50 going on 12 :)

  6. Mel C says:

    I guess I’m in the beginning of my trying everything still. :-)

    Either the crow or the dolphin. Why? Because they are both great problem solvers (a group of crows is actually better at solving some problems than humans!) and well, the dolphin loves to play in the water.

    I love solving problems and working things out.

    • Margaux says:

      I couldn’t figure out how to decide so I checked out some find-your-totem quizzes and the two best came up crow and dolphin.

      For crow, it said this, which matches well:
      “As a Crow, you are analytical, adaptable, and exceedingly clever. You like solving problems, sharing a hearty laugh with friends, and most of all, enjoying a good meal. Your inquisitive, philosophical nature leads you to constantly question authority and the status quo, sometimes just for the sake of asking, ‘Why?’”

      For dolphin, it said this, which is also appropriate:
      “YOU, AS A NUMBER:
      Infinity – As many possibilities as possible, please!”

      Dolphins are also sociable, inquisitive, and complex.

  7. Jakob says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Ann. :) I think my totem animal is a Horse. Quick, strong and adaptable is what I think when I think of horse. I’m all those attributes.

  8. Ann Littlewood says:

    Interesting that two people selected crows. I think of them as smart, tough, and social. Survivors, within a community. The horse is similar in these regards. I recently saw mustangs in eastern Oregon, doing fine in a harsh environment. Good to hear snakes getting some appreciation as well!

  9. Jackie says:

    Hi, Ann, thank you very much for sharing your story with us, it gave me lots of ideas, I’d love to do some of the things you described :-) For me, my ideal totem animal is the duck, because it can walk, swim and fly!!! It’s not just confined in one space, it can be on the land, water and air, and seems to enjoy everything; is nice, loving and tender. I think it’s the perfect multipotentialite animal. :-)

  10. Coralie says:

    ‘One of the great things about “being interested in everything” is that you can enjoy, for example, accounts payable software.’

    I am totally with you on this one, Ann, although for me it would be programming and the likes ;)

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    My totem animal is a lioness: feline,strong, fast, protecting and loyal toward her tribe, hard working (not like these lazy lions!).

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