Alumni Spotlight

Jonnie (Russell) Capiro ’01
Senior Mammal Keeper
San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Major/Minor: Biology

Activities: Four years on the Women’s Lacrosse Team

What first attracted you to Whittier College?  I wanted to be able to play lacrosse in a warm climate. As an east coaster, it was my first time visiting Southern California, and I was so impressed by the beautiful campus that I knew I just had to attend! Also, during my initial visit, I found people to be very friendly and welcoming. 

Why did you choose to study biology? I always knew that I wanted a career in the biological sciences, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I just knew that I loved being outside, and I wanted to do something that required physical labor and stayed close to nature. It just seemed like a natural progression to major in biology. 

Describe your experience at Whittier College. My experience at Whittier College was unforgettable. The student body, especially the different departments and the athletes, were like a family to me. It was comforting to be instantly connected to this new group of people, considering I was so far from my hometown of Baltimore. Spending four years at Whittier was fun but challenging. I quickly learned how to balance work and school with a social life. This skill has stayed with me, helping me remember to work toward my goals but to have fun and enjoy living in the moment at the same time.

Who was your favorite professor? My favorite professor was Professor Warren Hanson. He was such an engaging professor and always took a genuine interest in his students, which made a lasting impression on me. He drew elaborate illustrations on the chalkboard that no one could possibly re-create in one’s notebook! We had a great time visiting the Channel Islands on a research trip. Spending time with our professors outside the classroom was always invaluable. There were a couple of other fellow lacrosse teammates in the biology department with me, and Professor Hanson came to all of our home games! Since graduation, I have stayed in contact with him and he has even visited me at work a few times so I could share my exciting career with him.

What was your most memorable moment at Whittier College?  Making the Final Four lacrosse tournament and becoming division champions! 

Did you intern while at Whittier College? Where, and what was that experience like? I completed an internship at the Los Angeles Arboretum one summer. I wasn’t sure which niche of biology I wanted to dedicate my time to at that point. I knew that I wanted a job where I could work outside and be “hands-on” with whatever I was doing. The arboretum definitely fulfilled those needs and I was grateful for the experience and really enjoyed it, but I found out I wasn’t truly passionate about plants. This opportunity definitely helped me narrow down my career choices. 

What was your first job after Whittier? What are you currently up to? During my senior year, I decided that I wanted to work with animals. After I graduated, I spent a few years volunteering and completing internships in animal care and management. I finally landed a job as a zoo keeper at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and fell in love with rhinos and hooved animals. After working my way up for a few years, I pursued a master’s degree focusing my research on Indian rhinoceros endocrinology and behavior. Then, I moved to San Diego, where I currently work as a senior mammal keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. I have a dream job! I care for rhinos, giraffes, herds of antelope, cows, and deer in spacious exhibits. I work in direct contact with huge animals every day and love sharing my passion for animal care and conservation with our guests. I also serve on the board of directors for the International Rhino Keeper Association, where I’m involved with several committees. I’m constantly participating in fundraisers and awareness campaigns for rhino conservation. 

How has your Whittier education benefited you professionally? As a student at Whittier, I learned to go for what I wanted in life, especially finding my way off the beaten path. The supportive professors and curricula gave me the confidence to break out of the mold and find a career that suited me perfectly, not just a job. The creative blend of a biology degree with some liberal arts classes made me a well-rounded student and created a foundation for life-long learning. This desire to continue learning has definitely helped shape my role as a zoo keeper, as I am always researching animal care, conservation projects, and ways to become even more involved in my field. 

What advice would you give to future biology alumni when they graduate?  Meet as many people in your discipline as possible and be willing to work for free, just for a little while, to get some experience. Volunteer for projects, stay engaged, and take all kinds of opportunities. It’s all about who you know and what kinds of opportunities you have been involved in!

Finish this sentence: I am a ‘Poet for Life’ because…being a Poet takes commitment and courage, and those are two qualities that definitely define me!

-Are you a graduate of the Department of Biology and want to share your story? Contact the Office of Communications at