Quote Unquote: What It’s Like Being the Honolulu Zoo’s First Female Director

After starting as a trainee in the bird section and working in the commissary preparing food for the animals in 1986, Linda Santos, 57, became the sixth director of the Honolulu Zoo and its first female leader last year. The lifelong animal lover from Pauoa, who now lives in Kāne‘ohe with her husband and cat, has found her dream job.


Honolulu Zoo

Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



GROWING UP, I HAD A LOT OF PETS … I was one of those kids who touched anything and everything. I wanted to see what it was all about. We had cats, dogs, birds, pond slider turtles, mice, the stuff you can legally have.


IN HIGH SCHOOL, I WORKED AT ALOHA Beach Services [in Waikīkī] part time. I love to surf and I love the ocean, and I definitely knew I didn’t want to work indoors. But I also loved animals and I loved the zoo. So when an entry-level position opened up [in 1986], I jumped on it.


I REMEMBER GOING TO THE ZOO AS A kid and seeing the Galapagos tortoises and thinking my little pond slider was going to get that big.


ANIMALS ARE STARTING TO LIVE LONGER [in zoos]. We have the ability to provide better nutrition, better health care and a better environment. The animals are happy. You can tell.


I GOT TO HAND-REAR A SOUTHERN ground hornbill, and it was a really long process. It took us years to get him to breed. When I go to visit Abby now, he still comes running up to me.


THE STAFF COMES UP WITH THE NAMES [for the animals]. I got to name two Australian galahs: Ernest and Julio, after the wine.


“There’s a lot we can learn from animals. Animals are so resourceful. They’re not wasteful like humans.”


WE HAVE THE HARDEST WORKING group of people in the city. They come in and they’re going from the morning to the end of their shifts. It’s nonstop. They have a very short window of time when they can come in, clean the exhibit, put out all the food, give the animals their meds, give reports to the vets, get those exhibits up and running, make sure the pools are cleaned, get the animals out on exhibit. And once the exhibit is open, the staff starts cleaning the barns. It’s a lot of work. I think the perception for the public is that this job is so cool, we get to play with the animals. But most of the time, it’s very hard and very labor intensive. We do it for the animals and that’s rewarding.


THIS WOMAN TOLD ME THAT THERE were no tigers on exhibit. I said, “Are you sure?” There was a tiger literally hiding in the grass in front of the window and she was standing there, saying she couldn’t see anything. And the tiger was just staring at her.


I DON’T THINK PEOPLE REALIZE HOW much zoos contribute to the conservation of wild populations, whether it’s through funding or propagation of species. Zoos do a lot of great conservation work in support of animals in the wild.


WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF MY JOB? It’s hard to say. I like every aspect of it and every day I’m learning something. That’s one thing I love about working here. It’s continuing education.


Established in 1877, the Honolulu Zoo is the only zoo in the U.S. that originated in a king’s grant of royal lands to the people.