Authors: Saint Louis Zoo Public Relations Coordinator Kirby Ewald with
Lead Horticulturist Bridget Whittaker
From the tulips that line the path through Dinororaus to the tropical fishtail palm that boldly climbs high into the ceiling of the Herpetarium, there is really something about the breathtaking atmosphere at the Zoo. Many of our readers know about the keepers who take care of the animals, but who is in charge of taking care of the plants?
For Women’s History Month, we want to introduce our lead horticulturist Bridget Whittaker! Bridget is the woman responsible for assisting the horticulture manager and supporting the team of 13 employees that maintain and care for the Zoo’s many landscapes and interior plantscapes. The Zoo began using the term ‘lead’ instead of ‘foreman’ last year.
You may have noticed, there is a lot more to a beautiful day at the Zoo than the animals – a truckload of budding flowers more! The Zoo is proud to have an exceptional horticulture team that produces exceptionally breathtaking grounds. Every day, rain or shine, in every season, our horticulture staff are working around the Zoo, installing annual displays, supporting the animal's browse program, and performing every aspect of landscape maintenance to ensure Zoo guests 'ooh' and 'ahh' throughout their visit!
Bridget has been a part of this community for four years. She loves working at the Zoo because it allows her to do what she is passionate about at a place she highly respects.
“I have always enjoyed working outside. I grew up in St. Louis, and I was one of those guests who would be busy taking pictures of the flowers or trees when others were hurrying to the next habitat. The Zoo grounds are incredible and I know that this striking, unique landscape represents decades of work and care and it is a privilege to be a part of that legacy!”
Bridget enjoys the variation and freedom that comes with being a Zoo horticulturist. Zoo horticulturists have the opportunity to design and make new plant choices for the Zoo landscape. The designs often change with the season, and so Bridget gets to tap into her creative side.
She’s also proud of the people in horticulture, how hard they work and how driven they are to do the best they can. They care deeply not just about the presentation, but also about the conservation behind their choices. She notes that they often pick native plants to support pollinators, and pick areas around the Zoo where they can delay the winter cleanup of leaves and plant stems for the overwintering insects to use.
When asked about Women’s History Month, she is eager to talk about what it means to her.
“Highlighting women and their accomplishments is valuable, not the least because they have been so often overlooked. I have two sons, and I want them to recognize women as leaders and change-makers. It’s history that has been left out too often.”
She proudly talks about her team and women who do physically-exerting jobs.
“The women in my life have inspired me – particularly in the Horticulture field! Michelle Bellinger is part of my team and has been at the Zoo for 15 years. She is a force of nature with unlimited reserves of energy and creativity! She has been generous with her knowledge to new team members and has put on unique, dazzling annual displays at the Zoo for years. I remember when I first started: my manager was showing me the greenhouse and I noticed a big sign hanging from the ceiling. It read ‘Girls Rule.’ That sign was hung by Michelle.
So many amazing, passionate women work at the Zoo! I feel so lucky to be among them, and I'm proud of the other six women on our team. Women have leadership roles all over the Zoo across departments and that is inspiring to see. The leadership in the Horticulture department has demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that every team member is able to do their job and pursue opportunities to grow in our field. For example, one woman on our team wanted to perform more tree work in the zone she managed, and she wasn't able to start a chainsaw standing up in the bucket truck. Management made sure to invest in battery-powered chainsaws that everyone can start when in the lift.”
Bridget wants girls and women to know that the beginning obstacles are not permanent.
“Everyone starts somewhere. If you think you can’t start that equipment or know you’ll struggle with a task, that’s okay. You’ll get those muscles. You’ll earn those gains. Keep leaning in, asking for opportunities, trying everything – and you’ll succeed!”