New Beginnings for the Penguin Whisperer
Katy Wozniak '98, neé Antkowiak, grew up with three older sisters and a menagerie: six dogs, “four or five” cats, birds, guinea pigs, and rabbits. It was a bustling life, filled with trips to Sea World and to zoos, that stoked her desire to work with animals. “I always said I was going to be one of those trainers one day,” she says.
Wozniak's family lived in Oil City, PA, which she describes as a very small town. "I liked the small, close-knit atmosphere," she says. Later, she got to know another small, close-knit atmosphere on trips to Chatham College, where she visited her older sister Jessica.
“I loved how you were in the city, but once you drove up that driveway, and you were in another world,” she says. She loved it enough to enroll the following year, intent on pursuing her desire to work with animals through studying biology.
At Chatham, Katy fell in love with a psychology class in animal behavior. “It was the professors that made the class,” says Wozniak. “Dr. (Thomas) Hershberger and Dr. (Joseph) Wister. They helped me decide to change my major to psychology, focusing on animal behavior, with a minor in environmental science.”
Wozniak calls a study abroad trip to Belize led by Dr. Wister “the most amazing experience of my life. One morning we got up at 5:00 a.m., made our way through the jungle with flashlights and climbed a Mayan temple in the dark so we could be there for sunrise. I can’t even describe how beautiful it was. You’re sitting on top of this temple as the sun rises, you hear the toucans waking up, the howler monkeys waking up, you’re at the canopies of the trees, as far as you can see, rainforest and beautiful jungle. It happened over 20 years ago and I can still picture every moment of it.”
During her sophomore year, Wozniak interned at the Pittsburgh Zoo, doing observational research on orangutans and rhinos. A couple of years later, she went back to the zoo to work on her senior thesis: comparing elephant foraging behaviors in the wild and in a zoo setting.
“A lot of people think that animals in zoos are forced away from their natural behaviors, but they’re not,” she says. “For example, penguins in the wild spend about 90% of their time in the water, really just coming onto land just to breed and molt (lose feathers). So they have to eat and eat and eat in the water, to store energy for the time when they’re stuck on land. Here in the aquarium, we can just go up to them and feed them on land, but they don’t want it. They retain those natural behaviors. So we try to make their environments as natural as possible, so that people can see these natural behaviors.”
After graduation, Wozniak returned to the zoo to intern in the aquarium for a year, and had opportunities to work with other animals, too. When a full-time job for an aquarist (“that’s like a zoo-keeper for aquarium animals”) opened up, Katy applied and got it, beating out more seasoned aquarists across the country. She started working full-time at the aquarium in 2000.
“The ‘penguin guy’ was close to retirement age, and he wanted me to work with him,” she says. After two years, he did retire, and in addition to routine care, here’s something that became part of Wozniak’s unofficial job description: Think about ways to make a penguin’s day better (the technical term is ‘enrichment’).
“My penguins love bubbles, so we’ll put a bubble machine in the exhibit, and they’ll chase the bubbles around and pop them with their beaks,” she says. “They have exceptional eyesight, and they’ll follow a laser light. When kids run across the exhibit with those light-up shoes, you’ll see this whole group of penguins chasing this kid back and forth, watching that light light up. Then when we get a really nice snowfall we’ll take them outside to play in the snow early in the morning. They’ll get on their bellies and toboggan and eat snowflakes as they fall.”
“Our penguins’ names come from all over the place,” says Wozniak. “They might be named after a Pittsburgh Penguin, or a little kid from Make-a-Wish might name one — that, for example, is why we currently have one named Cakey-Wakey and one named Letang.”
Wozniak rose in the ranks, and formalized the aquarium’s internship program in 2006. She attended career fairs and reached out to colleges including Chatham, Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, and Slippery Rock University.
For the past 14 years, Wozniak has been taking her dogs to Twinbrook Animal Clinic for care. “During a routine visit, the owner and head vet told me that she was looking to bring someone on board who shared her passion for animals, programs, and reaching out to the community,” she says. “We met a few times after that, and then the offer to become the clinic’s practice director was on the table. It would involve not only managing the clinic, but moving their programs forward and expanding their offerings.”
“It was a tough decision,” she says, “but I love the staff, and I love the vets, it’s near my house, and I felt ready for a new challenge. I also wanted to give back to them for all the years they’ve been here for our animals.”
Wozniak is excited to bring Twinbrook out into the community. She envisions visits to schools, and bringing animal care to homes, for people who maybe can’t come to a clinic. Right now, Twinbrook focuses on dogs and cats, but Wozniak thinks that can
be expanded too. “There are so many areas around here that have farms with horses,” she says. “I think it would be awesome to expand the practice in that way.”
“In college, I loved my child psychology courses too,” says Wozniak. “And there’s real potential in using animals therapeutically, for anyone from geriatric populations to kids who may have issues. I’ve seen this with kids that come through the zoo on tours, how maybe they have a hard time focusing, but they can just focus on a bird and feel how soft it is—you can see it’s therapeutic for them. I have so many ideas, but I know I need to focus and prioritize,” she laughs. “But in the end, my goal is always to help.”
“It’s a little scary to be leaving this job that I’ve loved for the past 20 years, that has supported my life and my love of animals. But I didn’t want to get stuck in a rut, and I’m looking forward to this new adventure.”
Wozniak considers herself to be starting anew not just in her professional life, but also as a parent: her daughter Antonia is in college, and her son Joey is in second grade. “I’m going to a whole second round of sports events and elementary school plays,” she laughs. “And getting used to a new job. It’s like going through life again.”