Tara Chudoba Lives her Faith Through Wildlife Conservation  (2024)

On any given day at Tara Chudoba’s (01) job, based out of the Bronx Zoo in New York City, she can take a walk and feed a giraffe or watch tigers run around.

“In my line of work, we ask people, ‘what is your favorite animal today?’” Chudoba said. “It often changes from day to day, minute to minute in our field because we’ll hear about something really cool.”

She’s always had passion and love for animals and zoos. That’s what led her to her job as an educator at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a global umbrella organization that runs four zoos and an aquarium in New York City. Chudoba has been at WCS for four years.

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“Connection to nature in general is really special to me,” she said. “I remember specifically at Point Loma having a conversation about what the Bible says about stewardship. It’s really given me a lens toward my belief about conservation efforts and how we should connect stewardship to conservation struggles.”

WCS has a partner graduate study program based out of Miami University in Ohio called the Advanced Inquiry Program. Chudoba helps run the program, where students can get a master of arts (MA) in biology or an MA in teaching biological sciences.

Chudoba studied biology at PLNU. Growing up in Anaheim, she was raised in the Nazarene church, and her mom was an alum of Pasadena College. PLNU seemed like the perfect fit.

Chudoba lived on campus for a few semesters, then transferred to the University of Hawaii to study biology and take science classes that weren’t offered at PLNU at the time. After two semesters, she did summer undergraduate research with Mike Mooring, Ph.D., professor of Biology at PLNU, and felt called to come back to PLNU. She graduated a year later in 2001.

“It’s obviously God that I ended up [working at a zoo], a place that I loved being as an undergrad,” she said. “I loved the experiences that I had at the San Diego Zoo and at SeaWorld, and planting seagrass out at Point Loma and going to the tide pools and just being out in nature. All of the things that I got to do through my classes at PLNU have influenced the work that I do now.”

Chudoba teaches courses that take place at the Bronx Zoo, including ecophysiology and biomimicry. Her classes include a lot of content about “caring for nature, conservation, wildlife-based work, conservation psychology, Indigenous wisdom, and how all of that plays a role in conservation efforts,” she explained.

“We have colleagues in 60 different countries around the world doing work that connects back to the things that I get to teach my students about.”

She creates opportunities for community building in her classes, and finds joy in the variety of experiences that students are bringing to the conversation. She said she’s always learning in this field.

“We have colleagues in 60 different countries around the world doing work that connects back to the things that I get to teach my students about,” she said.

Chudoba first came to New York City to visit her sister for a couple months after she graduated from Point Loma. “That was 22 years ago, and I haven’t come back,” she said. Now, she lives in New York City with her husband, who is a jazz musician on Broadway, and her two sons.

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“It’s really cool when I hear the boys tell their friends that their mom works at the zoo,” she said. “And when I get to show their classes around the zoo and take them behind the scenes to meet keepers that are my friends, that’s really incredibly rewarding.”

During her time at PLNU, Chudoba was working in veterinary hospitals and thought she would go into veterinary science, but realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term. When she moved to New York, she got a position at a children’s museum in Brooklyn where she took care of the animals in their collection.

“It really opened my eyes to this amazing field of experiential education, informal education,” she said.

Connecting biology with education inspired her to get her Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University in New York, in a program that had a partnership with the Bronx Zoo.

Chudoba’s favorite class at PLNU was an animal behavior class with Michael Mooring, which she was also a teacher assistant for.

“I now teach at a graduate level an animal behavior and conservation course, and a lot of the examples I use are from the early days of animal behavior that I learned in his class,” she says.

Professors at PLNU helped Chudoba learn to “not be shy about being a Christian in the field of science — to have a voice and be comfortable with that voice,” she said.

“When I went to the University of Hawaii and got into my first class, I had the opportunity to be the awkward one in the class who asks a question about the biblical flood,” she said. “I can’t remember what the opportunity to say that was, but I remember getting negative looks from just about everybody in the class. I think at Point Loma you are around a lot of people who think like you, and when you go to a bigger university that isn’t always the case. I felt really silly in that class.”

Being one of the only women in a group of men studying science at that time was hard, she said, but she was encouraged by Mooring and inspired by how he modeled both a dedication to field biology and to raising his children with his wife.

After that class, Chudoba reached back out to her Point Loma professors for direction and support. At the time, professor emeritus of Biology Darrel Falk, Ph.D., was teaching and writing a book about being a Christian and a scientist.

“He sent me a draft of his book in response to how I was feeling,” she said. “It just really made it possible for me to not be embarrassed. How I share my faith, when I do share my faith, it’s foundationally from that experience of reaching out to my professors who were in the field that I wanted to go into and were also amazing, influential Christians.”

Being one of the only women in a group of men studying science at that time was hard, she said, but she was encouraged by Mooring and inspired by how he modeled both a dedication to field biology and to raising his children with his wife.

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“In my role now, I get to be that,” Chudoba said. “I get to be the advisor and instructor for when grad students are deciding what they want to do with this [degree] in their life. It doesn’t often give me an opportunity to share my faith, but it does give me an opportunity to live my faith, to see everyone as a child of God and loved by God.”

Many of Chudoba’s students are working part-time or full-time while in grad school and “bring their fields of expertise,” she said. “I am continuously learning from them about how they are going to fit conservation ideas back into their marketing degrees or accounting businesses.”

When teaching conservation, Chudoba integrates Indigenous wisdom and stories about Indigenous people’s care of the land, “how they don’t take too much and how they really have this belief of being one with nature,” she said. “I go into a lot of conversations around conservation looking at it through a biblical lens, but also with what Indigenous peoples have done traditionally for years in their work and their belief in caring for the land.”

“Wildlife and wild places in nature are disappearing…For years, we have taught in education conservation about individual action, but everybody recycles and nothing is happening.

Chudoba explained that conservation has become a social science, and positive change can’t happen without people and communities. For this reason, Chudoba believes that education is one of the most important aspects of conservation.

“Wildlife and wild places in nature are disappearing,” Chudoba said. “For years, we have taught in education conservation about individual action, but everybody recycles and nothing is happening. Everybody knows that plastic is a bad thing, but we still use plastic. Behaviors really have to change at a community or organizational level for change to happen. It’s important for communities to understand that.”

Creatively thinking about how various industries and people can “work together in unique ways” to save the environment is what drives Chudoba in her work. “We all have a purpose and place on this planet,” she said.

Tara Chudoba Lives her Faith Through Wildlife Conservation  (2024)
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