Katie Bello, CPBT-KA
Senior Trainer

katieabbyKatie grew up on the coast of North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in biology, focusing on avian and marine biology. She has had the opportunity to teach marine science education and conservation in the Florida Keys, practice animal training, husbandry, and education at Sea World Orlando, and participate in various animal behavior research projects during her undergraduate and post graduate career. Katie came to the NEI team in the fall of 2011 and has since been part of show productions at the Dallas Zoo, Texas State Fair, Brookfield Zoo, and Flights of Wonder at a major Orlando-area theme park. Working with exotic animals is her true passion, and she is always looking to further her education to better the lives of these animals and improve the relationships between animal and trainer. On her free time, Katie enjoys traveling, scuba diving, birding, kayaking, and spending the day at the beach. Katie has been certified as a professional bird trainer (CPBT-KA) by the International Avian Trainers Certification Board and is a member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.

Dan Blair, CPBT-KA Email-green
Senior Trainer

Dan was raised in Michigan just outside the city of Detroit. He attended the College of Mount Saint Joseph (MSJ) in Cincinnati, Ohio. While at MSJ, he worked at the Wings of Wonder, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Bird Show, for two years and discovered his passion for animal behavior, specifically bird behavior. Dan graduated in 2011, majoring in Biology with a minor in Forensic Science. He received an internship that year with NEI at the State Fair of Texas and officially joined the team in December of 2011. Dan has been certified as a professional bird trainer (CPBT-KA) by the International Avian Trainers Certification Board.

Damian Rumbough CPBT-KA
Senior Trainer

Damian graduated from Florida Southern College with a pre-veterinary medicine degree.  He then moved to Hawaii for an internship at Sea Life Park where he worked with the sea bird rehabilitation program. At the end of the internship he was offered a position working with the seabird rehab program and as a dolphin/sea lion trainer. After a few years in Hawaii, Damian moved to Florida with his fiancé Ashley Majtyka. While in Florida, Damian became a dog trainer. After a few years dog training Damian applied for a seasonal position with Natural Encounters inc. and was offered a positional the end of his seasonal term.

Shannon Miller

Shannon grew up in New York.  As a child she had a passion for marine mammals, and volunteered at her local aquarium.  She interned and became a dolphin trainer during college.  The department had only one bird in its collection, but she was hooked.  Shannon transferred to an animal ambassador team where she specialized in bird training.  From there, she discovered the Flights of Wonder and Winged Encounters shows with Natural Encounters, and moved to the ranch facility.

Shannon has a passion for parrots.  She is a part of the baby raising team at the ranch, and spends as much time as possible in the Northern Flights or admiring the red tailed black cockatoos.  Her love for macaws and cockatoos led her to volunteer with a parrot rescue and adopt birds of her own.   In her spare time she is either at Disney world, going on adventures with her two dogs, or singing with her macaw Buddy.  

Lucy Rutt CPBT-KA
Senior Trainer

Lucy was born in Denver, PA where she grew up with her parents and numerous pets. She began riding horses at the age of 5 and developed a love for them and other animals. Lucy has known since she was young that she wanted to have a career in an animal field. She attended Juniata College and received a degree in Zoology. Throughout college she worked at ZooAmerica as a zoo educator where she developed a passion for animal care and conservation. After graduating, Lucy was accepted into an internship program at Disney’s Animal Kingdom where she educated guests about animals as a Wilderness Explorer. Lucy started working in a seasonal position with NEI in January 2015, and was hired on full time later that year. In her spare time Lucy can be found reading, attending Orlando City soccer games, and dreaming about one day owning a greyhound in a sweater.

Lisa Haggadone CPBT-KA
Senior Trainer

Born and raised in Brookfield, WI, Lisa has always had a love for animals. She graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a Marine Science Degree, and a Biology Minor. While in school, she interned with a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, which was the catalyst that started her animal career. During her last two years in college, she work at a small zoo, Alligator Adventure. There she gained some great experience, that lead to her move to Florida with her husband. Since moving to Florida, she’s been able to be an educator at SeaWorld, educating the public through narratives at exhibits, leading tours, and teaching camp. Lisa also worked as a hoofstock and Africa Keeper at Central Florida Zoo and Brevard Zoo, respectively, which is where her obsession for Rhinos began.

She started working for NEI in August 2012 with the Winged Encounters show in Orlando, and was thrilled to accept a full time position that November. She continues to really enjoy the many experiences of educating the public and training the birds. Lisa looks forward to what her future holds!

In her free time, she enjoys reading, running, relaxing at the beach, trying new restaurants, and spending time with her cats. She is a member of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) and Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Megan Geddes
Senior Trainer

Born and raised in the great white North, Megan is yet another Canadian to make it into the NEI team and escape the snow and cold winters. Megan grew up on a small hobby farm in London, Ontario. With a passion for animals starting at a young age, she was lucky enough to care for a variety of barnyard species, and was occasionally found doing bird shows with her “eagle” (aka chicken) perched on her arm. In high school she volunteered at Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre, where she was surprised to discover a passion and fascination for birds. Further continuing her education, she majored in Zoology at the University of Guelph, where she joined the school’s Wildlife Club and even travelled to Vietnam to study Entomology. While still in school, Megan additionally worked for African Lion Safari, in the bird department for 3 years. Here, she found a passion for inspiring the public about environmental education and conservation through the daily shows and encounters. Megan was hired in December of 2014, and since then she has been fortunate to be a part of many NEI team’s: Orlando (Winged Encounters and UP! A great bird adventure), Chicago (Brookfield Zoo-Festival of Flight) and Indianapolis (Indianapolis Zoo- Magnificent Macaws). She cannot wait to see what the future holds for her!

In her free time Megan can be found outside going on adventures, thrifting for natural history/science based items, or taking photos and videos for social media.

Juoy Luzania
Senior Trainer
Juoy was born and raised in Arizona where she spent most of her time singing, dancing, and admiring all animals.  After enjoying a long career traveling the world as a singer/dancer, she was ready to settle down and focus on her other life passion: animals. She graduated from Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL and pursued a position with NEI where she could combine her performing skills with her love for wildlife.  She began her incredible journey with the Flights of Wonder team in 2013.  Currently, she is thrilled to be a part of Winged Encounters.
In her free time, she loves spending days with her husband, daughter, and toilet-trained cat. Her favorite birds at NEI are Amazon parrots (especially Newt, Molly, Gabby, and Groucho) and Blue-throated macaws (like Wall-E and Cletus)…and Gilmore the Goffin’s cockatoo.  Actually, her favorite NEI birds are all of them!

Sam Placko

Sam grew up in Ohio, in a small town south of Cleveland. She graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Notre Dame College in 2016. During college she did an internship at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for the summer working with a variety of small and large hoof stock species, small mammals and birds. After she graduated she did another summer internship at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo where she worked with large hoof stock species, birds and large cats. She then got a job working at Akron zoo in 2017 and worked there for a year. There she worked with small hoof stock species, grizzly bears, canids, birds and small mammals. Sam joined NEI as a seasonal at the Ranch in 2018 and was then offered full time after that. Her favorite part about working at NEI is getting to raise the baby birds. She has helped raise ravens, macaws, turacos and a hooded vulture. 

In her spare time she loves to be at the beach, walking nature trails, watching entire tv series over her weekends and of course playing with her two cats. She has also played volleyball since she was in middle school and enjoys playing in leagues and pick up games whenever she can. 

Zach Copeland

zachcricketZach grew up in Dallas, Texas. There he began working at an exotic ranch working with hoof-stock that included dromedary camels, plains zebra and Watusi. He graduated from Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL and immediately joined the team at NEI in August 2011. Zach enjoyed working at the NEI ranch getting hands on experience and training opportunities with a wide variety of birds. In 2013 Zach moved to south Florida and worked at Zoo Miami. He worked with reptiles and amphibians & took care of the meerkat collection. After moving back up to Central Florida, Zach was pleased to rejoin the NEI team in 2015.

Lauren Kirkendall

HoustonLauren was born and raised right here in central Florida. She’d always hoped of working with animals, but was unsure of where to start. So while attending Polk State College, she not only worked at a local veterinary hospital as a vet tech, she also worked as a barn hand at a facility that housed anywhere from 10-20 horses on a daily basis. Through both facilities she gained a hands-on education in medicine and large animal handling. After a year, she realized the medical side of animal care, though interesting, was not the perfect fit she was looking for.

From there she enrolled in the zoo program at Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville. There she learned everything from general maintenance of enclosures to the advanced biology of the animals she cared for on daily basis. While at the teaching zoo, Lauren found her true passion in birds. She also got SCUBA certified via IANTD and volunteered at the Jacksonville Zoo.

In 2012, a friend brought Lauren to NEI one night to watch her feed several baby macaws she was helping to raise. It was at that exact moment that Lauren fell in love with those goofy little things and immediately applied to NEI.  She was hired a month and half later.  Since then she has helped raise well over 100 baby birds, including macaws, turacos, ground hornbills, cranes, owls, and falcons. She’s not just been raising babies, she been training and doing her daily duties at NEI since 2012. Needless to say, she found that perfect fit she’d been looking for at NEI.

Paola Rodriguez

Paola was born and raised in Puebla, Mexico. Ever since she was very young Paola wanted to work with animals so she started volunteering at African Safari at the age of 11 working at the zoo’s environmental education department. She discovered her real passion at the age of 13 when she started volunteering with the bird show at the same zoo. She spent most of her weekends and vacation time at the zoo doing what she loved most – working with and training the birds. She graduated from Universidad de las Americas Puebla with a Bachelor’s in Biology and attended la Universidad del Medio Ambiente in the Estado de Mexico and earned a diploma in sustainability. Paola moved to the US in 2015 for an internship at NEI and fell in love with the company, so she applied for a full-time position. She worked as a keeper at the Ranch for two and a half years. Paola was part of the baby-raising team and has helped raise around 70 baby macaws! Now she works as a trainer at Winged Encounters.

On her free time, Paola enjoys attending conferences and workshops to learn more about animal training, reading and going to  theme parks.

Adam Triska

Adam  was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where he discovered his passion for wildlife and the outdoors at a very young age. He spent countless summer breaks at his grandparents’ country house in rural Sullivan, Missouri. Adam and his older brother spent most of this time at the nearby creek catching and studying whatever they could get their hands on.

When Adam went away to Southeast Missouri State University, he had a clear path laid out. He majored in both Wildlife Conservation Biology and Criminal Justice, with an emphasis in Law Enforcement to fulfill his dream of becoming a conservation agent. Adam accepted a college internship at the World Bird Sanctuary in 2011. His hard work and enthusiasm paid off, as his heart led him in a new direction and he accepted a full time position after graduation.

For the next two years Adam worked at the Raptor Hospital & Rehabilitation Center, led songbird reproduction research, assisted with educational programs, banded wild Peregrine Falcons, and trained Bald Eagles, among other things. In 2013 Adam was thrilled to be promoted to Manager of Propagation, Education training, and Eagle Flight Programs at WBS.

Adam’s new career aspiration was to work with the best of the best in the avian training world, at Natural Encounters Incorporated. When he was offered a seasonal position with NEI, Adam and his fiancée Desiree packed up their house, grabbed their dogs Duke and Daphne, and hit the road for Central Florida.

In his free time, Adam enjoys goofing off with his now-wife and their pups, bass fishing, rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals, and spending time outdoors.

Ray Minchey

Ray  was born in California, Md but later moved to Orlando, Fl. Here, she attended the University of Central Florida where she earned her B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Medical Sociology. Following graduation, Ray moved to Bermuda where she was a dolphin training intern at Dolphin Quest Bermuda. She also interned with Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine, Fl.

Ray started her journey with NEI in November of 2017 as a seasonal trainer and absolutely fell in love with the birds and staff. It was then that she decided that this is where she wanted to build her career. Today, you can find Ray performing at shows with Winged Encounters, but when she’s not there you can probably find her hanging out with her favorite little bird, Gilmore.

Nathan Hensley

Nathan was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up he spent countless days volunteering at the Cincinnati Museum Center developing a passion for nature. Nathan went on to graduate from Pikes Peak Zoo Keeping School in Colorado. While attending the college, he interned at Nature’s Educators Raptor Rehab working as a trainer and educator. After graduating, he went on to intern at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. There he worked with hoofstock, primates, small mammals, and birds. Working at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo allowed him to gain a passion for both birds and training. Nathan joined NEI as a seasonal trainer in late 2018.

In early 2019, Nathan became a full-time trainer on the Winged Encounters team at NEI. He can’t wait to grow as a trainer and see where the future takes him with NEI.

Ronnie Kerestus

Ronnie grew up in South Georgia, and graduated with his bachelors degree in biology from ABAC. After graduating, Ronnie joined the Georgia Sea Turtle Center through the AmeriCorps program. During his first year, Ronnie engaged guests through interactive programs as well as outreaches within the community. Throughout that time, Ronnie researched the impacts marine debris had on nesting sea turtles as well as hatchlings making their way to sea.

Ronnie then joined the husbandry team assisting with various medical procedures as well as the day to day care of all animals at the facility. While a husbandry member, Ronnie created an enrichment program that was geared towards sea turtles that would be released back into the wild. Ronnie then joined the SeaWorld team in their education department leading tours and other educational programs.

In 2018, Ronnie joined the Natural encounters team as a seasonal keeper where he later made full time as well as being given the responsibility of Enrichment Coordinator.

Ellen Matza
Ellen grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania but in 2010, moved to Florida to save her favorite animal species, the endangered Florida manatee. While in college at the University of Tampa, she interned in the Education department at SeaWorld, Orlando and in the Outreach department at Zoo Tampa where she cared for small mammals, birds, and reptiles. In 2014, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in marine science and biology and a minor in chemistry, and the Florida manatee was going great, so she turned to saving shelter dogs who were out of time.  She became a trainer and adoption coordinator for the On the Wings of Angels dog rescue but after two years, she realized she really missed the zoo world. She decided it was time to pursue a career in zookeeping, so she accepted a position at Busch Gardens, Tampa, where she got the opportunity to work first with birds and kangaroos, and later with elephants, tigers, and orangutans. 
Throughout her years working with various animals, she became very passionate about animal welfare, behavior, conservation, and education and she was looking for a company who shared all of those passions. In late 2018, Ellen joined NEI as a seasonal trainer and a few months later, accepted a full time position. She knew immediately that this company was special and she finally feels like she is where she’s meant to be! 
On her off time, she can be found exploring Orlando (specifically the rivers and springs where manatees hang out).

Flannery O’Brien,  CPBT-KA

Flannery spent her childhood reading animal encyclopedias and talking nonstop. The excitement of learning about animals followed her into college, where she pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Sciences at THE Ohio State University. During one summer, she interned at World Bird Sanctuary. There, she found that she not only loved working with birds, but that educating the public about them, while showing off their natural behaviors, was what she wanted to do for a career. After the internship, she spent the next 2 summers with World Bird Sanctuary’s Zoo Show Team at Stone Zoo in Boston and Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin, speaking free-flight shows. After a post-graduation internship with Houston Zoo’s Carnivore Department, she realized that her true passion was the free-flight show environment.

She moved to central Florida and has been working for Natural Encounters, Inc. full-time since August 2016. Not only does she get to work with the most incredible team of people and birds, but she gets to teach countless people about the importance of these fine feathered creatures.

Meg Meyer

Meg is proud to be a Minnesotan, and she graduated with a BA in Biology from the University of Minnesota – Morris in 2008. Craving an adventure, she accepted her first animal care and training internship with Dolphin Quest in Honolulu, HI. Although Meg was certain island life was not for her, she also knew that an animal care career was. 

After interning in wildlife rehab while in Wisconsin and journeying through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a Field Ecology Instructor for a nonprofit (Ecology Project International), she attended Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs for Zookeeping Technology. It was during that time that she interned at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and she attended her first IAATE conference in Dallas, TX back in 2014. IAATE was the fire that sparked her enthusiasm as an official bird nerd and ignited her interest in bird training.  After graduating, she accepted a full time position with the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, NE as a Bird Keeper where she worked with over 14 species of birds, including her favorite bird – the Tawny Frogmouth. 

Ever since discovering NEI at her first IAATE conference, she envisioned herself as an NEI trainer someday. Eventually, Meg sadly said goodbye to the Midwest, but happily accepted a full time job with NEI in December of 2016. She currently works on the Winged Encounters team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

In her free time she’s usually traveling, especially back to Minnesota to spend time with her family. She also enjoys going to beer church and being on a patio in the sunshine. 

Robert Ng

Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Robert is yet another Canadian to migrate down south to sunny Florida. Having lived just ten minutes away from the Toronto Zoo as a child, Robert grew up surrounded by animals and this is what fostered his love and passion for them.
Robert graduated from the University of Guelph with a Major in Biological Science and a Zoology Minor. He completed a wildlife rehabilitation internship at the Toronto Wildlife Centre during his undergraduate degree and it was there he found a passion for wildlife conservation and preservation. It was not until his last year of his university career that he discovered a passion and love for working particularly with avian species and doing educational outreach, while he volunteered with Wild Ontario. Since then, he has worked at various facilities in Ontario including African Lion Safari, The Toronto Zoo and Mountsberg Raptor Centre; caring for the animals (heavily focusing on birds of prey, psittacines as well as other species of ambassador animals) and doing shows and presentations for groups of all sizes to help inspire some caring conservation action. 
Eager to learn more and wanting to expand his knowledge, Robert attended the IAATE 2018 conference where he got to learn and see all the incredible work NEI was doing. Robert relocated to Florida in May of 2018 after accepting a seasonal position with NEI. And in July of 2018, Robert was thrilled to be hired on full time as a trainer on the Winged Encounters team!
Robert is also a professional member of IAATE (International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators). His hobbies include photography, traveling and exploring the wonders of our world and eating what his heart desires along the way. 

Claire Santiago

Clarie was born and raised in Miami, FL. She attended the University of Florida in Gainesville on a music performance scholarship and graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Music and a 

Bachelor of Animal Science. In 2017, Clarie’s passion for working with animals took her to the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo where she developed her skills as a keeper while providing husbandry for a variety of species. She enjoyed creating educational programs for zoo events and community outreach, and her interest in animal behavior and training grew when chosen to train a white-handed gibbon and a southern three-banded armadillo. 

Following her graduation from the Teaching Zoo, Clarie joined the NEI team as a seasonal keeper at the Ranch and in May of 2019 she became a full time keeper. She is thrilled to be part of NEI and hopes to further develop he skills as a keeper and trainer.

In her spare time, Clarie enjoys exploring Florida’s wild places, sampling local beers, and loving on her cats.

Aaron Tapia
Aaron was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas where he started to pursue his dreams of Theatre Production Management and Animal Behavior / Training. Starting in a small family owned pet store, he worked with many species of exotic birds and reptiles and soon realized that just wasn’t enough. He soon was able to combine both of his passions. While working at the store and at the Woodlawn Theater he was asked to teach local actors about reptile behavior and handling for a production they were planning for. He was featured in the local newspaper for his combined talent and expertise. He soon started his time with The San Antonio Aquarium where he began in their reptile department and quickly moved to the bird department where he was much happier. During his time there, he learned Avian Nutrition and became their Senior Trainer where he trained macaws, ostrich, toucans, turacos and many other bird species. 
Realizing he needed to grow and pursue his dreams with a new light he packed his bags and moved to Florida  in April of 2018. Aaron has an obsession with all things Disney. He quickly learned of the bird show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and he knew that’s where his heart wants to be. 
In late 2018 Aaron became a seasonal trainer and a few months later, accepted a full time position. Aaron can say that this experience is like no other, he is beyond blessed and thankful to be a part of an amazing team. He looks forward to his growth with NEI and to continue to educate the masses on avian behavior and conservation. 
In Aaron’s free time, he can be found in Walt Disney World making everyday magic and always on Instagram documenting his Disney lifestyle. 

Kassidy Valentin
From a young age Kassidy had a passion for animals and dreamed she would one day get to work with them. As a teenager she found SeaWorld’s Zoological Career Summer camps which she attended throughout high school. This exposed her to working with a variety of animals and ignited her desire to make that dream a reality. She later became a camp counselor at that very same camp to share her passion and knowledge with kids just like her. While attending Florida State University to pursue a degree in Psychology, she worked at the Tallahassee Museum, a historic center that’s home to natural Florida wildlife. She got to care for panthers, bobcats, red wolves, black bears, foxes, eagles, vultures, owls, gopher tortoises, mules, and a variety of farm animals. While working at the museum she made an unlikely connection with one of the black vultures and from there she discovered a new love for birds. After graduating she became a seasonal keeper at NEI Ranch team and was offered to stay full time! 
When she’s not busy saying “I love you, you’re my favorite” to all the birds at the Ranch, she’s loves going to theme parks, enjoying the outdoors, and spending time with her dog and axolotl!

Samantha Sablowski

Samantha was born in Gainesville, Florida and knew when she was younger that she always wanted to work with animals. She dreamed of being a Veterinarian but after her trials with chemistry, she began her search for a new passion. For a few years she was stuck in the world of retail and kept her love for animals as a hobby in owning cats, reptiles and exotic rodents. Sam also dabbled in art, picking up photography, painting, and drawing. Finally, she had enough of coupons and discounts and applied and was accepted at Santa Fe College an started at the Teaching Zoo shortly after. While at Santa Fe, she also volunteered at Ashton Biological Reserve and also trained a female Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo.

Sam’s  goal in life is to work with felines, specifically snow leopards, but also really loves any species of hornbill and herptiles.

Working with parrots has been a challenge, since her time at Santa Fe, but she is excited to take on those challenges, learn more about them, as well as improving her skills as a keeper/trainer.

Nicholas Blackwell

Born and raised in Orlando, FL, Nick developed a passion for wildlife and science at a young age. During his youth he frequently went on camping trips with his Boy Scout troop and spent his free time in the outdoors whenever possible. 

Nick graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.S. in Molecular and Microbiology and a Minor in Cognitive Sciences. During his time in college, Nick worked as a Research Assistant in the UCF Categorization and Decision Lab studying implicit learning and categorization in humans. After attending Disney’s Tour de Turtles in his last summer of college, Nick decided to shift his focus from healthcare to animal and conservation science. With this new focus in mind, Nick became an animal educator on the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. After a few months of educating guests about the animals on exhibit, Nick determined he wanted to be in a more hands-on role with animals. In June of 2019, Nick found his way into NEI as a seasonal trainer where he worked on the Up! A Great Bird Adventure show and also on the Winged Encounters show. During this time, Nick found a love for birds and the science behind training behaviors.

In October of 2019, Nick became a full-time trainer with NEI and is part of the team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He is looking forward to the opportunity to grow and learn from the best with NEI. 

Connecting People to Nature