ENCINITAS — Jessica Larios realized a childhood dream of working with wild animals when she founded The Wildlife Company in Vista 14 years ago.
At 4 p.m., June 19 she’ll bring her animal ambassadors to the Encinitas Library for an interactive “Good Eats!” presentation as part of the library’s summer reading program. During the show, kids will learn about the animals and their native diet. Some lucky volunteers will even have an opportunity to sample their food.
Larios was raised in Minneapolis, Minn. and remembers visiting the Minneapolis Zoo as a child. She had an ah-ha moment in middle school when her family traveled to San Diego and she visited SeaWorld for the first time.
“After that I planned to jump off orcas at SeaWorld,” she said, smiling.
During her senior year of high school, Larios got an internship at the Minnesota Zoo where she fed, trained and presented shows with the park’s six dolphins. She also helped to raise two baby dolphins that were born at the park. After high school, she studied zoology at North Dakota State University but soon realized that she wasn’t so much interested in scientific study as hands-on work with exotics.
Subsequently, Larios was accepted into the prestigious Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program at Moorpark College in Ventura County. After receiving her associate’s degree, she worked as an educator for a wildlife education program for two years. Then she decided to go out on her own and start The Wildlife Company.
Today, Larios cares for 40 different species of critters on her 2-acre wildlife facility that include a fennec fox, severe macaw, a boa constrictor, a giant black millipede — even a hissing cockroach.
Most of the wildlife was either owner relinquished or confiscated because they were kept illegally. Among the most popular critters in Larios’ menagerie is Izod, an alligator that was kept illegally in a garage. There is also Gepetto, a capuchin monkey that was rejected by her mother. Now 13, Gepetto enjoys life with best friend Belo, a ring-tailed lemur.
Larios says there’s a lot to running a wildlife facility including paperwork, permits, and veterinarian visits, including the cleaning and feeding. She estimates that she buys 100 pounds of produce each month as well as chicken and rabbit for animals with special dietary needs such as Zari, an African Serval (cat).
Kelsey Barker is a volunteer at The Wildlife Company and a senior in organismal biology at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego. Next year she plans to follow in Larios’ footsteps by earning a degree from the EATM program at Moorpark College.
“I had never worked with exotic animals before,” she explained. “But I’ve slowly progressed and have become well-rounded. In the beginning, prairie dogs were my favorite because they were the only species I was allowed to be with alone. That changed when I was told to form a relationship with Cheeya, a coatimundi (a mammal in the raccoon family). Because I worked so hard at it, I fell in love with her. She is so sweet and curious and always wants scratches or to be held by me.”
Barker recently visited Costa Rica where she saw coatimundis in their natural environment. She said her internship has helped her to gain knowledge as well as an opportunity to polish her presentation skills as an educator.
“I love the way Jessica does her show because she talks about an individual animal instead of overwhelming children with facts,” Barker said. “That’s such a helpful way for kids to learn.”
Larios explained that her ultimate goal is for children to become stewards of the planet by continuing to read and raise their awareness of little actions, such as picking up trash and recycling.
“It’s incredible to see that children have been driven to action by even donating presents received at a birthday party to animal charities,” she added.
Larios is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Animal Behavior Management Alliance. She traveled twice to Africa to observe and photograph many of the animals she works with in their natural environments.
Her presentations are available for elementary school assemblies, library programs, scouting programs and birthday parties.
For more information, visit wildlifecompany.com or call (760) 439-6444.