Two for the Zoo: Twin sisters share a passion for animal conservation

There’s one sister question Demitra and Samanthe Peterson don’t have to ponder: Which one’s the pretty one and which one’s the smart one?

They’re identical twins, age 27, both slender and naturally elegant, with classical features that seem to derive from their part-Greek heritage. Both earned 3.9-plus grade-point averages and graduated summa cum laude from Trinity University in 2001, where they often took the same courses. “We wouldn’t sit together,” says Demi. “We wanted to make it easy to tell us apart.”

Though the sisters have never dressed alike, they are similar in enough ways to confuse nearly everyone. Both, for instance, double-majored in French and psychology, and both went to Australia on a summer program during college, where they picked up some British Empire-isms that still flavor their vocabularies — “dodgy,” “spot on” and the like. Their resumes, in fact, are almost identical, from the format to what they’ve done at the San Antonio Zoo — where both Petersons now work in administration.

“Why should one of us have to give up something we like just because the other one does, too?” asks Demi, the elder by four-and-a-half minutes. The twins share a car, saving on expenses as they commute between the apartment they also share and their common workplace.

Fortunately, they’re in different offices once they get there. Demi is animal registrar, keeping a database of CArecords on animal transfers and medical histories, arranging for import and export of animals, corresponding with other zoos and fielding questions about past and present zoo residents from the general public.

Sam is assistant to the zoo’s living collections manager and to the operations manager, a job that involves her in much of what goes on in the zoo, from employee safety to construction issues.

Though both sisters have worked at the zoo for more than five years, co-workers still get mixed up, calling one sister’s extension — they’re only one digit apart — when they want the other Peterson. “I’ll listen and realize I wouldn’t know how to answer their question,” says Sam, “and then I’ll say, ‘I think you want to speak with Demi’ and transfer them.”

Both sisters think it shouldn’t be hard to tell them apart. “I think we look related, like siblings,” says Sam, “but I don’t think we look like identical twins.”

If there were to be a Know Your Zoo Twins poster, the Petersons have suggestions for what should be on it. “I’m a little taller,” says Sam, who wears her long, dark hair up at work. “You’d think (confusion) wouldn’t happen any more, since I cut off half my hair,” says Demi, whose hair is bobbed at chin length. She also points to a small beauty mark just left of her mouth: “I tell people, ‘Look for the dot — Demi, dot,'” she says.

“I’m the nice one,” says Demi, joking. “And I’m the nice one, too,” says Sam.

The Peterson sisters should be a familiar sight around the zoo. As toddlers, they were wheeled in their stroller to Brackenridge Park and the zoo by their parents, Linda and Carl Peterson, whose home at the time wasn’t far away. The sisters remember visiting the Fun Farm petting zoo as older children. At age 15, before they were legally permitted to work for pay, Sam and Demi wrote a single letter to Zoo director Steve McCusker, asking for volunteer jobs. “This was before the Zoo Teens (volunteer) program,” says Demi. “No one in the family expected us to get a response from our letter.”

But they did — and started an association with the zoo that has continued for more than a dozen years, with the sisters transitioning from volunteers to summer workers to administrative professionals. While both were at Clark High School, the Peterson twins worked in the zoo’s Education Department, helping to write a curriculum guide to a then-current PBS series, World of the Wild, creating a scavenger-hunt game for young zoo visitors and serving as summer camp counselors through their teen years. In their spare time, they traded stable-hand hours for horseback-riding lessons. “We were always involved with animals,” says Sam.

Both chose Trinity University — not far from the zoo — when their college acceptances came. They had planned on splitting up for college, says Sam, “but we both liked Trinity best of all the colleges we looked at,” says Demi. Neither took a course in zoology there, but both did internships as mammal keepers in their senior year, when they fed animals, cleaned cages and assisted with veterinary care in the large animal department, from tapirs to hippos.

Though some animals sling food — or worse — “You develop a relationship with them,” says Demi. “They all have personalities,” Sam agrees. (What’s the worst species to clean up after? “Birds,” says Sam. “Anything that eats fish,” says Demi.)

Though both sisters have loved animals since childhood — when whole-family allergies prevented them from having pets — they found they were even more interested in the human interactions at the zoo. The twins had stayed in touch with the zoo, working in the summer camps and sharing the duties of the weekend evening reception. A few months after graduation, Sam started full-time work as a clerk in the zoo’s marketing department, selling tickets and memberships before moving up to her present job the following summer.

“I like the variety,” she says. “With all the exhibits, the staff and the visitors, you never know what’s going to happen.” Sometimes it’s phone calls from the public. “People will ask if they can buy a tiger,” says Sam, “or tell us they’ve seen a possum in their back yard and ask if we want to come get it.” At other times, she’s looking up plans for a long-defunct exhibit.

After a longtime employee retired, Demi applied for and got the registrar’s position, one that puts her in contact with zoos all over the world. She’s also sometimes tasked with transporting animals to the airport; to make early flights, she sometimes brings small animals — “birds or an armadillo” — home overnight, where they’re safely contained for their journey. “Caring for animals is important,” she says, “but helping to preserve species (through breeding in zoos) is just as important. Most people don’t realize what an important role zoos play in conservation.”

Both Peterson sisters have considered graduate school — “Our parents would like to see us doing something more financially lucrative than working for a nonprofit,” Sam says, smiling — but aren’t sure what direction their education should take to keep them in the administrative side of the zoo world.

“My ambition is to get all our records into a database,” says Demi, gesturing toward a wall of filing cabinets devoted to decades of zoo-animal lives.

In their spare time, the twins share a love of crafts projects — Demi’s sculpture of tissue paper and souvlaki sticks is the most recent addition to their apartment decor — and both have taught Greek folk dancing at a family-owned restaurant since their college years.

Their heritage is “mostly Hispanic, and one-quarter Greek,” says Sam. (Poet Rosemary Catacalos is their mother’s sister.) “We don’t know exactly how the ‘Peterson’ comes in,” says Demi. When they are required to check a box for ethnicity on a form, says Sam, “we check, ‘Other.'”

“Whatever we are,” says Sam, “we’re the only ones.”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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