Zookeeper Becomes Real Estate Investor

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Former zookeeper and TNREIA member and investor Sonny Christopher, has recently traded the wild world of unpredictable primates for the wild world of real estate. Originally from Birmingham, Sonny, now age 28, has an Animal Science degree from Auburn University. But real estate investing wasn’t on the radar back then. Here’s the back story: Sonny spent 3.5 years at the Atlanta zoo where he took care of nine different species and about 50 individual primates. He cleaned up after them and helped train them (behind a barrier). One such training involved getting the monkeys to present various body parts.

Sonny explained. “I would say, ‘show me your hand, show me your foot.’ When they did that we would give them a treat. The purpose of this training was to allow us to do checks on them without touching them. For instance, if they got in a fight we would ask them to show us their hand, so if they had a cut we could treat and monitor it. This also helped when animals needed their annual vet check. You’re trying to get them to voluntarily present themselves. At that point the vet tech could give them a sedative and then go in there for the checkup and the animal would not be stressed out.” Sonny said it was like having 50 individual pets - moneys, lemurs, tamarins. “They enjoyed the social interaction with us and learned to trust us.” The coolest animal Sonny worked with was an orangutan who knew sign language. He would ask for a blanket, food, treats, ask to go outside, etc. You could definitely see how intelligent he was and the way he could figure out a situation. Sonny says they were lucky enough to be partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, headquartered in Atlanta, who conducted research with their apes. “They learned to count to nine and could touch the numbers in numerical order scattered across the screen.

Sonny moved to Nashville to work at the Nashville Zoo, but left in March to pursue real estate. “When I left Atlanta I had enjoyed doing renovations on my house and saw the potential profit which sparked my interest. I got a Real Estate Investing for Dummies book as a Christmas gift and started listening to Bigger Pockets podcasts. I progressed by reading, listening, where I learned more and more.” So Sonny took the leap and bought his first property mid-August in the Paragon Mills Park area off Harding and Nolensville Rd. With his mother as his financial partner, they bought a three bedroom, two bath, 1260 sf home for $162,000. (He used TNREIA sponsor Gore & Reynolds to close.) But buying did not come easy. He was outbid several times and searched for six months before this buy worked out. Sonny’s goal after renovation is to be under $200,000. “My mother is handy herself and has helped me with some of the renovations. We’ve added new countertops, flooring and re-tiled the guest bathroom.” I’ve painted 1/3 of the house so far. Next will be new roof, siding repair. “The biggest thing REIA has done for me is to allow me to meet so many good people who have helped me. I’ve learned a lot from Doug Betty and other TNREIA members.” Sonny loves seeing the transformation of his house. The unpredictability of opening up walls, etc. reminds him of his zoo- keeping days, “similar to putting two animals together or having a procedure for an animal - it almost never goes according to plan! You just have to adjust and pivot on your plans on the spot.”

Additionally, Sonny has kept his Atlanta house as a rental. He’s going to pay his mother back on the current one and will live there and continue renovating it. Then they’ll buy another one. Sonny Christopher obviously thrives on dealing with “the wild” so sounds like real estate investment suits him well. Sonny is enjoying his abode with his dog, Django, and a kitten he recently rescued, named Tater. Sounds like Home Sweet Home indeed for this investor!

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