Women’s History—Animal Care Superstar Marjan Ghadrdan Celebrates Nearly 20 Years At AWARE

In addition to being AWARE’s Director of Animal Care, Ghadrdan helped save and lead the nonprofit in 2011 after its founder Dr. Michael Ellis passed away. 
Working With Animals

AWARE’s Director of Animal Care Marjan Ghadrdan has long had an interest in animals. One of her earliest memories involves a woman zookeeper at the Atlanta Zoo. “I was 4 or 5, and she was so beautiful,” recalled Ghadrdan. “She was holding this sloth, and I remember thinking I just wanted to be her. I think it’s so great when women are out there and they’re mentors and inspirations for other people.”

Ghadrdan doing some vulpine dental work at AWARE.

That memory has served Ghadrdan well. These days she spends most of her time at the Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE), a nonprofit animal rehabilitation hospital and education center in Stonecrest right at the base of Arabia Mountain. As the Director of Animal Care, Ghadrdan manages all of AWARE’s animal care operations including rehabilitation, surgery assistance, ambassador handling, volunteer management, and non-releasable animal placement.

“It’s such a beautiful place,” said Ghadrdan. “My favorite thing about AWARE is that it only runs if people care. It survives purely on public donations and almost entirely off of volunteers. AWARE saves a lot of people, not just animals. And I think that’s true of me and a lot of people who’ve come through those doors.” 

A Surprising Path

Ghadrdan was the center’s first hire in 2010 as a Wildlife Care Supervisor. She had volunteered at the organization since 2005 before it was even open to the public. At the time, Ghadrdan was in college but wanted to change schools and was looking for volunteer work to beef up her CV. “So I found AWARE,” recalled the Georgia native, who grew up without any pets. “It didn’t seem like something I’d want to do, but I figured it was fine because it was going to be temporary…and 19 years went by.”

A bald eagle that Ghadrdan rehabbed and was later placed in education with an Oklahoma tribe.

AWARE was much smaller back then. The founder Dr. Michael Ellis created the nonprofit in 1999, which, at the time, made it only the second animal rehabilitation center in the Atlanta Metro area. Even though he had no spare cash, Ellis envisioned creating a facility that could serve and educate Atlanta and the Southeast. Having spent a decade as a wildlife rehabilitator in the northwest, Ellis trained Ghadrdan in what he knew. “Michael was just an incredible person,” said Ghadrdan. “I learned so much from him. He was a huge mentor in my life, kind of a cranky guy but he had a heart of gold. He just loved those animals.”

A chainsmoker for years, Ellis passed away in February 2011 from complications from lung cancer. AWARE’s future became suddenly uncertain. “It hurt us all a lot,” said Ghadrdan about Ellis’ death. “And we didn’t really know what to do.” Ghadrdan had just been hired a few months before as the first employee, and there were already talks of shutting down the center. Ghadrdan was surprised to find that the organization had given her a purpose and she refused to let it disappear. So she “broke into” Ellis’ computer and asked his contacts about animals and caring for them. For nearly a year, Ghadrdan served as the nonprofit’s de facto director until a new executive director, Dr. Tarah Hadley, was hired to fill Ellis’ place. Ghadrdan’s actions saved AWARE. “We managed to make it through and stay open and still be here after all this time,” she said. “Ellis was always worried that when he passed, the center would be lost. One time, he cried and said, ‘This is the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life and I just want it to always exist.’” 

Spreading AWAREness

Ghadrdan doing a presentation on venomous snakes at the Amphibian Foundation.

Nearly two decades after first volunteering as a young college student, Ghadrdan can’t believe how time has flown at AWARE. Certainly keeping the nonprofit open is her proudest moment, but she feels similarly to Ellis that the everyday work is invaluable. “I never thought I could do something like this,” confessed Ghadrdan, who’s helped rehabilitate and care for hundreds of species, everything from mighty bald eagles to small ambassador animals like the org’s popular Shelli the box turtle. She’s also worked with animals in veterinary hospitals, zoos, and rehabilitation centers across the state. “AWARE makes me proud of myself every day, even on the bad days or when I don’t do good,” said Ghadrdan. “It’s like I can’t be a terrible person if I’m there.” 

Those years at AWARE have led to other opportunities as well. With a fondness for snakes, Ghadrdan has worked as a snake wrangler on film sets for dozens of productions such as Black Lightning, The Originals, Legacy, Star Girl, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, Lovecraft Country, Dynasty, and Scream the TV series. She’s also the head of the Venom Department at Atlanta’s Amphibian Foundation, managing their venoms collection and teaching the public how to handle venomous slitherers. This is all in addition to working as the Certification Director for the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council for the last decade, certifying animal rehabbers across the country and imbuing them with more knowledge and resources

But Ghadrdan recently stepped down from that position (though she’s still on the board) and she’s also taking a break from snake wrangling. Not because she doesn’t want to anymore, but because she’s expecting in June! “I’m very excited to have a baby girl,” said Ghadrdan. As for her daughter’s animal ambitions, Ghadrdan said, “I will tell her to do whatever makes you happy, just be a warrior while you do it.”