Delaware Valley University Celebrates Special Connection to the Philadelphia Eagles During Super Bowl Season
Delaware Valley University (DelVal) alumna, Laura Soder '11, has a special connection to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Soder, who majored in conservation and wildlife at DelVal, is the show woman behind the mascot eagle you see at the stadium before each Eagles game.
As the manager of ambassador animal engagement at Elmwood Park Zoo, Soder oversees all of the training and presentation of ambassador animals. Ambassador animals are travelers who go offsite for what Elmwood calls, "zoo on wheels." These are animals whose job is to be up close with different crowds as opposed to people who would normally come to see them at the zoo. Soder leads Elmwood's mascot teams, which include trainers for Noah and Reggie, two animal ambassadors for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. She also currently trains, Stella the Owl, the animal ambassador of Temple University.
Reggie, a 12-year-old eagle, has been training with Soder since 2018. Reggie had no training prior to first joining the mascot team in 2018, but he was a fast and eager learner. By the 2019 Eagles football season, Reggie was already performing at training camps and games. Reggie has been taking over for Noah, a 22-year-old eagle, who has a very long history of being the Philadelphia Eagles football team animal ambassador.
"Reggie is a quick learner and is always looking for new things to do, which can be very exciting when it comes to training," explained Soder. "He's a big fan of night games and random scenarios."
As one of the main handlers, Soder leads the team in ensuring that all guidelines for animal safety and handler safety are being followed. Through specific permitting, the handlers must also have an educational focus. Since eagles were almost extinct 50 years ago, handlers inform the crowd of their conservation success story. Wildlife education is something Soder never thought of doing, but her passion for it now is fueled by teaching others about these resilient animals.
"It's incredible that we have such an amazing species that's made a comeback and has a tie to our local football team," explained Soder.
Other ambassador animals that Soder oversees include small mammals like chinchillas, ferrets, hedgehogs, skunks, opossums, reptiles, snakes, turtles, different types of lizards, and more. She trains the staff to make sure that they can handle these animals appropriately, and she works on overseeing the general animal training for the programs. Soder explains that her team has been working hard to move towards training their animals to do behaviors that display their adaptations, an exciting sight for kids especially.
"Our goal is to let the animals speak for themselves as much as we can, and so rather than me stand up there and say 'this animal can fly,' we want the animal to show you that it can fly!"
Her favorite part of the job? The magic and excitement.
"When you work with kids, they get excited about the same things that I can get excited about, and you can kind of latch onto that and then continue the conversation," said Soder. "You get to see their faces light up when they find something neat."
DelVal is a noted leader in blending classroom education with hands-on experience. While searching for the right university, Soder was interested in all of the niche opportunities DelVal's unique academic programs offer. She enjoyed her animal behavior classes, the hands-on learning aspect of her education, and the real-world connections. Wildlife conservation, education, and animal handling were key experiences after taking internships in her sophomore and junior years. Her internship experience led her to finding out just how much she enjoyed sharing and teaching about things that she loved. She is appreciative of DelVal's small class sizes and campus community connections that led her to the position she has today.
The skills she sees as the most valuable in her current industry are flexibility, attention to detail, willingness to learn, and honesty. She mentions that a lot of the daily tasks in being an animal trainer are learnable, but it takes someone who is eager and can communicate effectively about their own comfort level.