Front Range

Cat Woman

Hollie Colahan isn’t your typical animal-lover: Working at zoos from Houston to Orlando, Colahan has bottle-fed baby cheetahs and tended to agitated animals during hurricanes. Now, as the Denver Zoo’s large mammal curator, she helped facilitate a deal with the royal family of Qatar to bring a trio of young lions to Denver—the zoo’s first cubs since 2006.

April 2013

NAME: Hollie Colahan

AGE: 39

OCCUPATION: Large mammal curator at the Denver Zoo

FORMER EMPLOYER:  Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park

SPECIALTY: Colahan oversees the lion programs for all accredited zoos in North America.

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How did you get into this line of work?

I wanted to be a vet, so I started volunteering at the zoo. Two things happened at the same time: I discovered all these zoo jobs that don’t require you to be a veterinarian, and I found out that I have no aptitude for organic chemistry, which is really important if you want to be a vet.

What does a large mammal curator do, exactly?  

Curators take care of collections; here, we’re just taking care of a living collection. It’s similar to art or fossils, but my collection has to be fed and watered. I’m involved in moving animals in and out and designing new exhibits. I make sure to keep these captive populations healthy so we can sustain them long-term.

How are the lion cubs adjusting to the Mile High City?

I have worked with lions for almost 20 years and never had lion cubs. It’s great having them here because they’re so active. You see a lot of behavior similar to that of domestic cats; it’s just on a much larger scale. It was 95 degrees when we left Qatar; I wasn’t sure what they would think of the weather here, but they love it. They went out and played when it snowed.

Have these cats lived in the wild?

Most animals in zoos are several generations removed from the wild. The vast majority of species in zoos were born in captivity. It’s still a misconception that we are going to Africa and collecting these animals.

So they’re not necessarily wild, but we can’t exactly call them house pets, right?

When I was in Houston, I raised two cheetah cubs. I kept them in my office for a while to socialize them. People think it would be great to have little cheetah cubs at home, but my office smelled like cat pee and my chair was shredded.