When school is a zoo. Student zoo keepers gain experience in addition to degrees

EIGHTY Santa Fe Community College students enjoy working with animals so much that they take most of their college courses in a zoo. They are enrolled in the college's Zoo Animal Technology Program, the first of only three such programs in the United States. Students are trained as zoo keepers or for related careers in zoological parks. Conservation and protection of wild species are emphasized.

The five-semester program takes 18 months to complete. In addition to 25 hours of general education courses in English composition, math, and the sciences, the student zoo keeper learns about animal nutrition, animal breeding, mammal culture, aquarium culture, aviculture, and herpiculture. According to Jack Brown, the general curator and a teacher, these classes are not freshman-level courses, but are taught on a graduate level.

``Years ago,'' says Mr. Brown, ``a zoo keeper was considered a janitor. Zoo keepers aren't janitors anymore. They're scientists. You have to have somebody to do the maintenance kind of things - feeding and cleaning - but you have to have somebody who can observe behavior, who can think about animal nutrition, who can think about everything involved in the animal's environment. That's what our program specializes in.''

A major benefit of the Santa Fe program is the 14-acre zoo that is right on the school campus. Here students acquire the experience necessary to land a job after graduation.

Among the 224 specimens, there are 74 species, including peccaries (vicious South American animals that look like pigs), several kinds of wild cats, primates, Arctic foxes, rock hyraxes, members of the deer family, 28 kinds of exotic birds, and reptiles and amphibians (some deadly poisonous).

``There are different management styles for different animals,'' says Brown. ``We select the animals here in the teaching zoo according to the experiences the students will get from them.''

Students quickly learn whether they are suited to the occupation. As Brown notes, ``Our job out here taking care of animals can be very dirty and grubby. We have to let everybody know that's part of it. A lot of people come in with the mistaken idea that there's a lot of hand-feeding, touching, and cuddling of animals. There's very little of that. A lot of the work is manual labor.''

``After the first semester, the students really are zoo keepers. They do all the cleaning and maintenance, the medical work on the animals, behavioral observations, and hand-raising, if necessary.''

A zoo keeper's job is demanding; it is no different for student zoo keepers. Their days begin with rounds at 8 a.m. and end about 5 p.m. In addition to their regular studies, zoo courses, and hands-on duties in the zoo, they serve as tour guides for more than 10,000 elementary school students every year, an activity that gives the zoo keepers valuable experience in working with the public.

Another important function of the zoo is animal rehabilitation; in particular, the treatment and release of endangered species. At least 20 injured eagles have been treated at the zoo, as well as countless other animals. Rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild whenever possible.

Ariel, a majestic American bald eagle, resides in the zoo's newest display area. The open enclosure allows up-close observation by visitors. Because of shoulder injuries, the bird is unable to fly. It is hoped that an injured male will be located and the zoo will be able to breed this endangered species. Any resulting chicks would be released into the wild. Such conservation efforts are one reason students come to study here.

When Becky Hinwood applied for work at the Minneapolis Zoo, she was told her bachelor's degree in biology was not enough to qualify her for a beginning zoo keeper's job. She was referred to Santa Fe Community College for proper training and hands-on experience.

Now a second-year student with a strong interest in conservation, she praises the training program. ``The zoo is not just for keeping animals,'' Ms. Hinwood explains. ``We're trying, through education, to perpetuate the idea that zoos are not just for people to come in and look. They're for educating people about conservation. We have the school education program here and the real emphasis is on conservation and endangered species, and I think that's one of the best ways to be involved in conservation.''

Graduates of this program are in great demand by the country's major zoos and biological parks. Although some students decide to go on to a four-year college for a bachelor's degree, 80 to 90 percent are employed in their chosen field after graduation from Santa Fe.

How do new employers feel about these zoo keepers? Brown says, ``The most common thing that happens is when I've sent a zoo keeper out to a zoo that has never had one of our graduates before, the curator will call me back and say, `Hey, this is great. Send me more!'''

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