Kristen Riggs first fell in love with animals then the South

Kristen Riggs, 23, grew up just outside Los Angeles, Cali. and moved to the Nashville area to initially pursue ballet.

Once in here, she decided to stop dancing to focus on a more studious career.

“I loved ballet and I did it for 18 years of my life,” she said, “but I love studying and learning, especially about animals, and I always saw myself ending up as a professor or scientist.

Kristen said as long as she could remember she’s always been a member of the Los Angeles Zoo.

“I can definitely thank my parents for my obsession with animals,” she said. “My mom is a special education teacher and my dad is a fire captain so I definitely grew up with parents who cherished helping others,” she said.


As a child, Kristen and her family travelled a lot because of her ballet. She said they would play a guessing game, which involved her and her brother asking questions about a particular animal.

“When we were little the animal was something like snake, and by the time we were a little bit older it became gaboon viper,” she said. “My parents definitely instilled a love of animals in us when we were little but as I grew up it got so much stronger.”

She said once they were in a new place, the first thing the family would do was visit a local aquarium or zoo.

Kristen starting volunteering around local conservation centers around LA at 17. When she turned 18, she began volunteering with the big cats (lions, tigers, leopards etc) and primates.

“What started out as just an obsession eventually came my life goal,” she said.


Kristen moved to Nashville 5 years ago to dance with the Nashville Ballet.

“I never thought I would end up staying in the South but it grew on me,” she said. “I love the sense of community and morals that the South provides.”

In August, Kristen will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology with a minor in Animal Science from MTSU.

She has been interning at the Nashville Zoo since January 2014.

“Being an intern in animal care pretty much emulates what it is like to be a zookeeper,” she said. “My day starts at 7:15 a.m. by feeding out the morning diets to all the animals. All of the animals in the zoo have their exhibits that the public sees, but they also have indoor ‘bedrooms’ that they go into every night.”

She said this area is temperature controlled and allows us to keep them safe from the unpredictable weather. Before the animals get shifted out to their outdoor exhibits, interns and zookeepers will usually set up some kind of enrichment for them. She said it changes daily and it ranges from their favorite toys to hidden treats to finding scents.

“One of our tigers is obsessed with a giant, plastic pickle and she goes crazy when she sees us put it out on exhibit. She just can’t wait to get to her pickle,” she said.

Throughout the day, Kristen is involved with keeper talks, or short educational talks to the public about some of the species at the zoo. After, she will find projects to do in the afternoon like building new toys for the animals before putting together a “p.m. diet” for them for the night.

This year, she worked on research studying olfactory stimulations in the clouded leopards and received first place for it at the Southeastern Ecology and Evolution Conference.

“I loved having the opportunity to work on my research,” she said. “I focused on clouded leopards and how different scents affect their behavior. Now, I am planning to complete research in many different large carnivores including bears, felines, and canids.”

After she graduates, Kristen said she will be applying to graduate schools to focus on large carnivore research and hopefully make a difference.

She said she wants to continue to dedicate as much time to the animals as possible.


“To me community is the willingness to help a complete stranger with no expectations of getting something in return,” Kristen said.

She said especially working with animals; it’s very humbling to have the well being of another creature in your hands.

“It’s so important to be caring towards everything, people and animals alike,” she said.

“I think something everyone should do is educate themselves on what zoos are all about. Zoos are so important to learning about animals and lets the public sees why we need to work to save these animals. With so many animals on the brink of extinction, being able to learn about exotic animals that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise is imperative to their survival.”

She said one of the most difficult parts is definitely getting people involved.

“The zoo is a nonprofit organization and research done by zoologist are funded fully by grants or money out of their own pockets,” she said.

“I can’t imagine raising my future children in a world where I have to show them pictures of Amur leopards or white rhinos because they went extinct. These animals can’t petition to have their homes preserved so we are in charge of making sure their lineage stays intact,” she said.

Kristen said she’s thankful for her family, her fiancé, Dr. Brian Miller for his supervision, and the mammal team at the Nashville Zoo, especially the carnivore team for their support on her research.