UNITY, Maine — Like lots of people, siblings Derrick and Alyssa Maltman have loved animals since they were little and harbored dreams of working with them one day.
But unlike lots of people, their dreams led the Unity College seniors this summer to internships where they worked directly with tigers, bears and other animals.
“I was on cloud nine. This summer was an amazing summer,” Alyssa, 21, said Saturday of her internship at Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler, Texas.
There, the captive wildlife major with a minor in zoology helped train a 7-foot-long rescued Bengal tiger named Amara.
Her brother — older by 11 months — said that his whole life he has wanted to own a zoo. His internship took him to Israel, where he worked in the predator department of the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan. There, he turned the information he had learned in his captive wildlife care classes at Unity College into real-life, hands-on experience. Derrick blogged about his adventure for his friends back home.
“The first moment I stepped over the public barrier and to the zookeepers’ enclosure, it was the best moment,” he said. “It was like I’d been waiting for it my entire life.”
The Maltmans are originally from Zanesville, Ohio, but they are self-described “Army brats” who moved around a lot while growing up. They were going to high school on a military base in Germany when they took their PSATs in their sophomore year. They checked a box indicating they were interested in pursuing a career in zoology, and received the 2009-2010 catalog from Unity College, which featured a cover photo of a student feeding a giraffe. That was it for the Maltmans, who did not apply to any other schools.
“It was Unity or bust,” Derrick said.
They were accepted, without ever having visited the school, and came to Maine with their parents to move in for freshman year. As they got closer and closer to Unity, the roads seemed smaller and the larger cities and towns seemed very far away. It was night, and Alyssa was nervous.
“We got here and we were in the middle of bumpkin country, Maine,” she said.
But the friendliness of the small college — where the other students knew them as “the German kids” — drew them in. Another bonus: they loved their classes in animal care from the get-go. Alyssa said she has wanted to work with big cats since she watched “The Lion King” at the age of 2. Derrick said that he originally wanted to be a paleontologist after watching “Jurassic Park,” but switched focus after his mother explained that dinosaurs aren’t alive anymore.
“I was expecting to be sitting in the classroom, reading a book, like in high school,” Derrick said of his first day in Introduction to Captive Wildlife Care.
Instead, the teacher took the students out to Sandy Stream, where they looked for invertebrates and cemented the siblings’ idea that they were in the right place.
Alyssa said she discovered a passion for animal training last year while taking a position working with dogs at the Waterville Humane Society. Although her summer internship with the tigers and other big cats was “a bit different” than working with rescued dogs, some aspects weren’t. She learned to use a clicker and chunks of meat — every Thursday was “donkey day,” she said — to reinforce desired behavior. That included getting Amara to rise, sit and lie down so that Alyssa could look at her paws and otherwise make sure she was healthy.
The cat had been rescued from a private owner who had beaten her every day and made her fight Rottweilers as a cub. Since Amara’s rescue, she has learned that not every human is the enemy, Alyssa said.
“I know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to train animals,” she said. “It’s not for everyone. You have to stay very calm.”
Derrick said he finds working with animals, even large predators, relaxing. He worked with the animals at the Tel Aviv zoo — including bears, honey badgers, wild dogs, Persian leopards and Israeli wolves — to make sure they were kept safe, clean and mentally stimulated. He also challenged himself to always be aware of his surroundings and to be careful.
“You double, triple, quadruple check everything,” he said. “I think as a keeper, if you don’t have [obsessive-compulsive disorder,] you will develop it.”
“You have to remember they are wild. They are not your friends,” his sister chimed in.
However, the duo’s experiences only made them more excited to keep working with animals after graduating from Unity College next spring.
“Zookeeper is not the most high-paying job, but at a party, you’re the one everyone wants to talk to,” Derrick said.