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Meet Jill McLaughlin of Jungle Jill’s Animal Encounters in North West Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jill McLaughlin.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Jill. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My love and appreciation for animals began as a little girl and led me to pursue an animal related career. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and double majored in Biological Aspects of Conservation and Zoology. After graduating from college, I had the opportunity to take a conservation course that landed me studying in the middle of the rainforest of Ecuador. While spending time at the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station of Ecuador, my friends back home dubbed me “Jungle Jill”.

Traveling to the jungle was an unforgettable, amazing, eye opening experience. I was able to see first-hand animals living in the wild and the different adaptations they use to survive on a daily basis. I also witnessed the unfortunate human encroachment affecting the animals of the rainforest as well as the astounding rate of deforestation. Realizing the need for conservation education and utilizing my degrees, I have gone from working in the education department of the Minnesota Zoo, to being the director of the Education Department at Wildlife World Zoo, right here in Arizona, to starting my own business.

My spouse and I met while working at Wildlife World Zoo. We had our first child in 2006. While I thoroughly enjoyed my zoo job, I had always envisioned myself being a stay at home mom and I found it terribly difficult to return to work after he was born. With a growing animal collection of our own and “Jungle Jill” as a long time nickname, I didn’t need to leave my animal career behind. I could fulfill my wish to be a stay at home mom while continuing to teach about the world’s animals with the start of Jungle Jill’s Animal Encounters.

Since that time, our family has grown. I am now the mother of four lovely children. We live sort of a “mini farm lifestyle”, we homeschool and run the business from our home. Our children have had the opportunity of growing up in the family business. My eldest is now 11 and accompanies me to shows, and assists with programs. All of the children help with the care and feeding of the animals. It is definitely a group effort on a daily basis. I couldn’t be “Jungle Jill” without all the behind the scenes help from our entire family.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
With every business there are of course struggles along the way, Part of the challenge of owning your own business is over coming those obstacles as they present themselves and persevering regardless of the task at hand. We have had a variety of challenges over the years. Starting a business in general can be a scary thing. There is the constant worry of did we do the right thing of going into business for ourselves? The unknown of whether or not the business is going to be a success? Is this business going to continue to provide for our family for years to come? These are things you have to sometimes stop worrying about and just continue plugging along or they will consume you along the way. The unknown of it all can be exhilarating, it’s what drives you to continue on as a small business to reach that next goal or success.

Some other things we have had to deal with along the way include the fact that I have degrees in animals, not business, or accounting, or insurance, or marketing. These are all things I have had to learn along the way. There is always something new to learn. Also, I am a one man band so there is always the feeling of there not being enough of me to go around. I started out just doing birthday parties on the weekends when Dad was home to take care of the kids. But as business grew there was a greater demand for my programs, during weekdays for school programs, when I was not available. Many may not see this as a struggle because business is growing, the demand is there, that is what we want. The struggle was, how to fulfill the need and want for our growing business when there was only me to conduct programs. We made a leap of faith in 2012 to have Dad stay at home full time so I could take on as much work as possible. Now I am providing programs 5-6 days a week. This proved to be the next big step for our business and is now our family’s sole livelihood. That in itself brings forth a constant internal struggle, it is very rewarding but yet very scary at the same time.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Jungle Jill’s Animal Encounters story. Tell us more about the business.
Jungle Jill’s Animal Encounters provides LIVE animal programs with birds and reptiles for schools, birthday parties, and events all over the Phoenix Valley and surrounding areas. We do 300+ programs a year and bring education and enjoyment to 10’s of thousands of people each year. We also do programs for scout groups, special needs children and adults, retirement communities, nursing homes, libraries, company parties, preschools.

Our company is unique from other animal companies in the Valley because we have a variety of different birds and reptiles. The animals range from parrots, chickens, our famous Lurkey the Turkey, a Laughing Kookaburra who does his call on command and a Eurasian Eagle Owl, to large and small snakes and lizards, turtles and tortoises, as well as smaller invertebrates such as hissing cockroaches, scorpions and tarantulas. With over 15 years of providing animal based education, “Jungle Jill” is always the presenter at every show.

Over the years, I have also had the opportunity to work with some famous animal trainers such as, Jack Hanna (on numerous occasions), Steve Martin of Natural Encounters Inc., and Julie Scardina of Sea World San Diego. I have also appeared with animals on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on Late Night with David Letterman. In addition to making nationally televised appearances, I have also appeared on many local television stations here in the valley, such as Channels 3, 5, 10, 12, and 15.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I look at it as more of being in the right place at the right time instead of luck. When I moved to Phoenix, during the summer after graduating from college, it was getting into the beautiful time of year. The zoo I started volunteering at was about to be hiring for the “busy” season so I got hired into a paying position quickly, stroke of luck #1. That doesn’t always happen in the zoo field. I learned a lot of things quickly and found my niche of working with animals and educating people. My boss at the time, decided to move on in his career and I got moved up into the education director position, at a young age, stroke of luck #2. I stepped up to the task at hand, learned many new things beyond just working with the animals. I learned the ins and outs of how to run the department, interact with employees, and do the behind the scenes work of the business. Making the decision to start Jungle Jill’s Animal Encounters also happened at just the right time. It is scary to make the leap of quitting a job you have in hopes that your business will take off and thrive. At the time, the Phoenix Valley didn’t have any businesses that traveled birds AND reptiles, stroke of luck #3. There was a niche that needed to be filled, and we were there at the right time. Things took off from there!

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