Brooke Shields Almost Gave Up Acting for Animals During Internship at San Diego Zoo as a Teen

At 17, Brooke Shields interned at the San Diego Zoo, where she did "a lot of cleaning up and a lot of meal prep" for the California zoo's animals

brooke shields
Photo: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Brooke Shields is beloved for her roles in film and television, but the actress admits she thought about giving up fame for a career caring for animals.

"It's actually what I thought I would do with my life," Shields, 56, told PEOPLE about her passion for animals at the opening of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at the San Diego Zoo.

"It all started from being on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and often being a guest when Johnny would have animal advocate Joan Embery bring animals on," she added.

Through these visits to The Tonight Show and some other projects, Shields befriended Embery as a teen and began to think seriously about working with wildlife.

"I really was like, 'Yeah, I've done enough of this acting and modeling. I think I'm ready to focus on animals,' " Shields shared.

This developing interest in helping animals led Shields to take an internship at the San Diego Zoo at the age of 17.

brooke shields
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

The job included "waking up at 5:30 a.m." and "a lot of cleaning up and a lot of meal prep" for the California zoo's residents. Even with the early hours and hard work, Shields adored the time she spent interning at the zoo, and the role developed a respect for the "tremendous amount of work, upkeep, and maintenance" it takes to run a zoo.

While Shields continued her career in entertainment after the internship, her love for animals has never waned. On return visits to the San Diego Zoo over the years, the star has been impressed by how the zoo has "changed dramatically" over time, often inspiring other zoos to do the same.

"Before, humans at zoos were the voyeurs. You'd just look at something but not really learn or understand how you're a part of it," Shields said.

brooke shields
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Today, the San Diego Zoo and many others have exhibits that educate visitors about animals, their native habitats, and how humans are responsible for protecting both.

The San Diego Zoo's newest addition, a 3.2-acre state-of-the-art, multi-ecosystem experience called Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, is specifically focused on helping animal lovers of all ages learn about how they can protect the planet and the countless critters that call it home.

"Wildlife Explorers Basecamp speaks to the budding conservationist within us all and shows us the marvels of the natural world," Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. "Through these gates, millions of world changers will begin their journey with nature and demonstrate the power of empathy and compassion as they join us to become allies for wildlife."

brooke shields
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

The new experience includes numerous interactive and sensory elements designed to help guests develop empathy for all creatures — from the smallest bug to the largest mammal — and understand how each species plays a part in keeping the Earth healthy.

Shields recently enjoyed the immersive experience and was left amazed by what she learned.

"There's so much, and I think children will feel so excited by it. But I think adults won't be able to get enough too," she said.

To learn more about Wildlife Explorers Basecamp and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's continuing conservation work, visit SDZWA's website.

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