A Wild Ride in the Zoo and Aquarium Field

Vaughn Severin | February 15, 2022
A Black man sits in a boat with equipment; the water is near green bushes.

Vaughn Severin operates a boat to help WCS’s staff photographer capture a wildlife shot. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

This essay comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Black History Month, WCS and the PBS series Nature are sharing six stories of nature and conservation.

Black History Month is a time for me to reflect on my career and think of ways to inspire future generations. It reminds me that I have no excuse to not achieve the professional goals I have set forth for myself. I appreciate the hard work, sacrifice, and courage of Black Americans before me who paved the way for my success at the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization known around the world.

Though I’ve lived in New York for most of my life, until I was 14 years old I lived in Dominica, a tiny island in the Caribbean. In Dominica, I was surrounded by nature. My walk to school took me along a river and near farmland, where I would typically see goats, chickens, cows, donkeys, pigs, and other animals. I loved the sights and smells of a farm. When I am working around the zoo, it brings back these childhood memories. It keeps me humble.

I have been at WCS for 13 years. I started with a summer job as a shuttle driver taking visitors around WCS’s Bronx Zoo. I’ve always had an interest in cars and machinery (I ride a Harley Davidson Road King Classic), and how things work. I gradually expanded into the vast technical and mechanical environment at the zoo. I participated in educational opportunities to grow into a management role. Now, I take care of a fleet of vehicles including trains, cars, shuttles, golf carts, and other zoo vehicles. Most people don’t realize there are career choices like mine at the zoo.

Two, one-story high bright orange representations of octopus tentacles.

Installing an octopus tentacle installation on the roof the New York Aquarium. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

As Manager of Ride Maintenance, I ensure the efficient and safe operation of all rides at the Bronx Zoo. I also work throughout WCS’s five parks on various projects such as network infrastructure, electrical work, and installation of point-of-sale devices. On the creative side, I take our staff photographer up in a lift or out on a boat so she can get unique shots of zoo scenes. Other times, I’ve been asked to model in front of the camera for the zoo.

My work changes daily, which I love. Take this inter-borough special delivery, for example.

I am around animals and other interesting characters every day – even dinosaurs. I was part of a team that transported a fully assembled life-size Cryolophosaurus over 20 feet long to Prospect Park Zoo, where it would make people aware of a Dino Safari event at the Bronx Zoo. We loaded our unusual shipment onto our animal food commissary flatbed truck and headed out on a road trip from the Bronx to Brooklyn.

We started on the interstate and then took to the local streets because our load was too high to clear the area’s bridges. We were very entertaining to the citizens of New York City – the talk of the town. Traffic stopped all along our route. We were like superstars. Everyone got out of their cars and came out of their houses to take pictures. People were asking us when Dino Safari started. We saw ourselves on social media everywhere. The dinosaur move turned out to be a great promotion for the event that summer.

A Black man in dark blue work jumpsuit walks next to life-size fake dinosaur, wrapped mostly in plastic, outdoors.

Vaughn Severin installs the Dinosaur Safari exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

It sounds like relocating prehistoric creatures could be the most challenging part of my job, but actually, managing the zoo’s monorail maintenance is number one. It requires specific knowledge in mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic systems as well as physical skills to climb high above the Bronx River to service the tracks. And I need to stay current with technology to maintain safe and efficient operations for our staff and our guests.

The Bronx Zoo is its own city within the city. There are many different moving parts to its operations, which provides many different career paths. Those interested in a job like mine should educate yourself, invest in your passion, and grow with the times. Do something that makes you happy, focus your energy to get to the next level, and be the best at what you like. If something is important to you, find a way.

There are two people at WCS who have really helped me achieve my goals. Chris Papaleo, Director of Admissions and Parking, mentored me to develop professionally. Chris Filomio, Director of Rides for 27 years, gave me the opportunity to further my knowledge and skills in the electrical field. I now have many certifications.

I am most thankful to my mother, who made a very difficult decision—when my brother, sister, and I were just toddlers—to move to America. She left us behind and worked hard for many years, often going to multiple jobs in one day to give her children a better life. Without her sacrifice, the success I have today would not have been possible.

A Black man with beard and fleece jacket reaches to turn on a small light bulb on string of lights on tree trunk. It is nighttime.

Vaughn Severin helps with the Bronx Zoo’s Holiday Lights installation. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS.

I’m proud that the work I do benefits WCS and has a purpose. It has an impact at the zoo, and worldwide, which gives me great joy to wake up every morning and do the things I love. I hope I am paving the way for others.

See more articles, infographics, podcasts and video on the official site of Nature, an award-winning, signature PBS series created by The WNET Group. and made possible by all of you.

Film premieres and encores are also part of THIRTEEN’s Black History Month celebration.