Like an ingénue dreaming of her big break in showbiz and pulling up beneath the “Hollywood” sign after days on the road, Athena Csuzdi also drove to an unfamiliar place – except in her case, the long journey ended in a Canadian city, and the big sign above her spelled “Vancouver Aquarium.”
Athena grew up on 12 hectares “in the sticks” just outside of Kenora, Ontario. She wistfully remembers catching butterflies and frogs, and watching catfish spawn at the end of a lake. Although her childhood was enveloped in nature, she wound up studying communications at the University of Windsor before taking on a job as a credit analyst – pretty corporate for a girl who was used to getting her jeans dirty.
A visit to Vancouver in the fall of 2006 was all Athena needed to realize she wanted to get back to her animal-loving roots.
Athena was like a “deer in the headlights” when she visited the Vancouver Aquarium then, saying “I had no idea growing up in rural Ontario that an organization like this existed.”
Six months later, amidst her friends’ and parents’ uncertainty, she quit her job, packed her Honda Civic with her life’s possessions and drove across the country. She didn’t have a job waiting for her, but she did whatever she could to get her foot in the Aquarium door.
Athena worked at the Aquarium’s gift shop, volunteered and networked extensively before eventually landing an assistant biologist position. She said it was surreal, especially since it had only been a little less than a year previously when she told her family, “I’m going to go hug the trees and save the whales!”
Now, she’s less about “hugging the trees” and more about navigating around them, as she makes her way around the Amazon gallery’s free-flight jungle to clean exhibit habitats. As the biologist responsible for the tropical freshwater animals, it’s one of her duties. In addition to cleaning exhibits, Athena prepares food, feeds the animals (which include electric eels and stingrays), monitors water quality and fixes specialized equipment.
Athena’s day-to-day work isn’t “Hollywood” glamorous, but in her own way, she’s made the big time.
Learn about other Aquarium staff during the Ask the Staff program taking place daily during Vancouver Aquarium Up Close, a special feature exhibit on now until April 30.
Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.