Dream Job | Kay Panabaker
Some say that former Naperville Disney star Kay Panabaker was living her dream job as an actress on the hit TV show Summerland in 2004. At thirteen, she starred as Niki Westerly with on-screen boyfriend Zac Efron as Cameron Bale. She did love that life, but she also had a hidden longing to work with animals. Nowadays, you’ll find Panabaker still working for Disney, but at Disney World in Orlando in her dream job as an Associate Animal Keeper.
Can you tell us your responsibilities as an Animal Keeper at Disney World?
I maintain the care, well-being, management, behavior conditioning, and enrichment of our animals and birds. I work with goats, sheep, elephants, porcupines, skunks, donkeys, cows, parrots, birds of prey, and opossums to name a few. I do animal presentations on our stages and maintain the ‘Affection Section,’ which is our petting zoo. I’m happy to say I’ve been here two years now.
Your current job is such a remarkable change. Why did you leave acting?
I no longer had that love, that passion. With Summerland, I loved going to work. I guess my discontentment started several years later on another TV show I was on. By contrast, it wasn’t a good experience. The cast didn’t seem to love it. The producers didn’t seem into it. The crew was constantly changing.
The kicker for me was when a producer told me that they were going to be bringing on a love interest for me, and that I needed to lose weight because of that; I was barely a hundred pounds. I didn’t think this was a good reason for a character to lose weight. It’s not like my character was going to catch a life-threatening disease or anything. I was 21 at the time the show ended. I spent a couple years after that in LA, still auditioning, but the passion wasn’t there.
How did you find your dream job?
With my parents’ help, I began to re-evaluate my life. I went back to school, [Kay already had a degree in history from UCLA at the time] and entered an eighteen-month animal program in Gainesville, Florida at Santa Fe College. I did an internship at Disney World and then I was hired. That was about two years ago.
How do you feel about the change you’ve made?
Looking back, finding my true passion was worth all of the extra time. I work with some of the most incredible people, who inspire me to work harder and make a bigger difference in the world. That aspect was missing in my previous career and is something that feeds my soul in my current line of work. I love it when I leave work and have felt like I was able to inspire and make a difference, even if it was just one person that day. I don’t earn a fraction of what I used to, and yet, I couldn’t be happier.
I get recognized from time to time at work, and the one thing I always impart on people is: life is short. You have to love your job because you spend so much time there. So that’s what I’ve done. And I just want people to love what they do, whatever that is.
Happy people have a huge impact on the world. And with all the negative things in the world and how much the Earth itself is being impacted, I just want to be a light in the world.