FARGO — Family vacations for Wendy Trottier growing up consisted of visiting zoos across the country.
"I've always been an animal lover. My dad was a real nature nut," she said.
Trottier, 68, carried on that tradition of visiting zoos all over the United States with her children, too.
But nearly 20 years ago, an opportunity taking her fascination for animals to the next level was presented to her right here in Fargo.
"When there was a zoo opening in Fargo, I couldn't wait to get started down there and be able to do that," she said.
She started volunteering at the Red River Zoo four months before its inception in 1999.
There were few paid staff then, and because it was brand new and little funds were available, the zoo heavily relied on volunteers like Trottier. That remains true in 2018.
The zoo has 90 active volunteers today, said executive director Sally Jacobson.
"This zoo has been created completely through volunteerism and philanthropy," Jacobson wrote in a message to The Forum. "Volunteers play a vital role at the Red River Zoo. They help us in nearly every aspect of our work. We have volunteers that help with construction projects, office work, gardening, education and animal care. There really is not one part of the zoo that has not been impacted by volunteers."
Depending on the season, Trottier's tasks vary. She does inventory in the springtime and during the school year she visits classrooms for educational programming. Her favorite work is handling and caring for the animals, but she doesn't play favorites.
"I like them all. We have a cockatoo I just love and a bull snake. I love walking sticks and cockroaches. I just like them all," she said.
Ten years ago, Trottier said a stroke forced her into retirement following a long career as a nurse at MeritCare (which merged with Sanford in 2009).
"This was my saving grace," she said. "I could still come out here and do stuff even though I was in a wheelchair or in my walker."
Now she walks through the zoo grounds with a cane — and a smile.
She volunteers between 15 and 20 hours per week — that amounts to around 15,000 hours over the course of 20 years — and she wants to keep it that way for as long as possible.
"It's a real passion. People don't realize the hidden treasure we have here," she said.