A longtime Houston zookeeper has been selected as one of 10 nominees for the first-ever Golden Zoo Keeper Award. "She's a superhero," coworker Suzanne Jurek says. "She has such a joy for life and passion for the things we do in here." KHOU
“From the point I woke up, all I wanted to know is how I was going to get back to work,” remembers Sara Riger.
The longtime zookeeper had just awoken from a medically-induced coma after doctors amputated her legs below the knees, as well as the fingers on her right hand.
“I couldn't imagine not being at the Houston Zoo and doing what I loved, so there was no question that I was going back," Riger says.
Her passion for her job got the attention of the American Association of ZooKeepers, which picked her over nine other nominees for its first-ever Golden ZooKeeper Award.
"When I saw the other keepers who were nominated, I was blown away,” says Riger. “I know there are hundreds and hundreds of people all across the world who work so hard at zoos and aquariums and don't often get all recognition they deserve for all the blood, sweat and tears they put into this job."
Riger has given plenty of all of those since she started at her first zoo more than two decades ago. A marine biology major, she had no idea where her new career would take her.
She started at the Bronx Zoo working with birds before she moved onto an upstate New York zoo, where she cared for primates and lions. Riger's next move was to Nashville, where she helped launch the critter encounters area and ran the nursery.
While she’s worked in just about every category, with almost every animal out there, there is one constant in Riger’s varied experiences: babies. She has, in her years of zoo keeping, raised gorillas, goats, sheep, camels, bison, bearded pigs, kangaroos, cougars, tigers, elephants, giraffes, orangutans, cheetahs and leopards.
“Babies should be with their moms, but it doesn't always work out that way,” says Riger. “Taking care of and raising these animals is really one of my passions."
That passion helped her get involved with the Clouded Leopard Project, the goal of which was to increase the worldwide population. The effort included three trips to Thailand, which included one visit to hand-raise the first two cubs born ad part of the project.
"It is the best feeling I've ever had. It's exhausting. It is so amazing to be able to share your knowledge with other staff and include them in the process as well,” Riger says. “You get so connected to these babies that are entrusted into your care. That's what zookeeping is all about. You don't come into this position for the fame or money. You do it for your love of animals."
She spent the past 13 years at the Houston Zoo, first caring for carnivores, then primates. Two years ago, she moved into the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.
“That is my home now,” says Riger. “I love it there."
Her time in the shop was cut short when she collapsed at work in December 2015.
Riger was taken to Memorial Hermann’s emergency room next door, where doctors learned she had a perforated colon. After an initial surgery, she was doing well.
“Then I crashed,” Riger says. "I didn't wake up until January 2. I had no idea what had happened. My last memory was the emergency room."
What she couldn’t remember is why doctors amputated her legs; she went septic and her legs went necrotic. To increase her chances of survival, her physicians made a tough call, one it took Riger a long time to understand.
Her next move was to TIRR Memorial Hermann – “the best of the best,” she says – for recovery and physical therapy. After all, Riger had to learn to walk on her new prosthetic legs.
"It was exhausting, but there was no other alternative,” Riger says. “I had to get back on my new feet and get back to work."
She made her return to the Zoo and Swap Shop early last summer, much to the delight of her friend and coworker Suzanne Jurek.
“She’s a superhero,” Jurek says. “She has such a joy for life and passion for the things we do in here.”
Riger knows the children who visit the Swap Shop will have questions about her “robot legs” and she’s happy to answer them.
"They give me a platform - no pun intended - to break the ice,” Riger says, noting that her conversations with Swap Shop visitors often start with queries about her legs, then transition to what the shop is all about.
Her story is certainly inspiring – to the children who visit her as well as her coworkers, one of whom nominated Riger for the AAZK award.
“The joy that Sara brings to everyone makes her worthy of this award, I think,” says Lauren St. Clair, a spokeswoman for the Zoo.
Riger says she’s honored and touched to be the recipient of the AAZK's first-ever Golden Keeper Award.
"I may have been knocked down, but I got back up and in the game,” she says. “I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. Other people in this situation can do it too if they have the right spirit."