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March 2007
Volume 2, Number 3

An Unusual Attraction: A Zoo on Campus

Julie Garrett

Most community colleges attract their students locally. But Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida, has one program so unique and prestigious, it draws 50 percent of its students from out of state. In fact, students have come from as far away as Switzerland and Japan. This program has a 12- to 18-month waiting list and requires 1,800 hours of physical labor. Students will get nipped and scratched, dig ditches, trim trails, and sweat through a five-month, 90-degrees-plus Florida summer. And they won’t care, because they’ll be doing what they love.

Santa Fe’s Zoo Animal Technology program turns students with a lifelong fascination for animals into zookeepers.

Founded in 1970, the program is the first of its kind and boasts a 10-acre Teaching Zoo on campus that is home to 220 individual animals representing 75 species. It is the only community college in the United States with a zoo on the premises that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The Zoo Animal Technology program is a year-round, five-semester academic program that leads to an associate of science degree. A new class is admitted every other term, and at peak enrollment, there are 150 student zookeepers.

Zoo director jack brown instructs student zookeepers in ear tagging a young springbok.“Students do everything from open the zoo to close the zoo,” said Director Jack Brown, who came to the zoo as an instructor in 1974 and moved into the role of director in 1985. “They work all the animal chores, muck out ponds, build enclosures, prepare diets, give medications, and hold the animals during veterinary exams.”

With the combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training, graduates leave with nearly a year of full-time work experience on their résumés, a great entrée to the zoo world. They are snapped up quickly. The program has a 90-percent placement rate. Graduates work at zoos and biological parks nationwide, not to mention at wildlife agencies and veterinarian offices.

Brown says Santa Fe’s graduates are a good investment. “I will get a call from a curator who’s never had a student from our program before. And the most common thing they say is, ‘Jack, these guys are great. Send me more. It’s exactly like getting a trained employee,’” said Brown.

He’s had zoo directors tell him of hiring employees with a bachelor’s degree in biology only to have them work for six or eight weeks until one day, they throw down their rake and wheelbarrow and say, “I don’t want to do this.”

“Our students have done absolutely everything, so when they start at a zoo they know exactly what’s happening,” said Brown. “All they have to do is learn the particular procedures for that zoo. They know the animal chores from top to bottom, the behaviors, the art of animal observations and record keeping. They are a complete product.”

John Lehnhardt is the Animal Operations Director at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Kissimmee, Florida, about two hours south of Gainesville. He is a strong advocate of the SFCC Zoo Animal Technology Program. In addition to sitting on its board of advisors, he’s arranged for $20,000 in annual scholarships for zoo students and frequently sends his staff to SFCC to give lectures and demonstrations.

“Between 15 to 20 percent of our animal care staff are graduates of the program,” said Lehnhardt. “When we realized this soon after our park opened in 1998, we started to develop a strong relationship with the zoo. It is our most significant resource for our direct animal care staff.”

An Innovative Program

The Zoo Animal Technology program was a new program at a new community college when it began in 1970. Santa Fe opened its doors in 1966, and in the summer of 1969, two professors, a botanist and zoologist, traveled the nation interviewing administrators at zoos and botanical parks to see if there was an interest in a professional training program. They got a resounding yes. The two brought their idea home to the Santa Fe administration and got an equally resounding yes, and the Biological Parks Program and the New World Zoo, consisting of two classrooms and a large fenced yard, were born the following year.

“Indoors, they had some reptile and amphibian exhibits and on the outside, they began getting some small monkeys and alligators,” said Brown.

In 1972, Santa Fe consolidated its campus on a new property and the zoo found its permanent home—then a cow pasture studded with turpentine pines on the edge of a small woods. Space was so limited in the only zoo building, the veterinary examination table doubled as the secretary’s desk.

Thirty-five years later, the zoo setting consists of a mixed hardwood forest, with the animal enclosures nestled under the trees and connected by sawdust-covered trails. Animals who prefer a sunny, open habitat live in what is left of the original pasture. Zoo buildings now include an office, classroom, reptile house, and medical buildings.

Initially, the idea was to focus on “new-world” animals. It wasn’t long before administrators realized students needed experience with old-world primates, and all sorts of other animals, for their education to be relevant.

Zoo visitors at the monkey exhibit“People come out here and ask, ‘Where are your tigers? Where are your elephants?’” said Brown. “We explain to them very carefully that our animals are selected for their management styles and what they will teach students in terms of their résumés. We want our students to get as broad a spectrum of experience as possible without endangering them.”

The collection includes big hoofed animals such as guanacos, which are like llamas; little hoofed animals such as muntjacs, the smallest deer in the world; African grey parrots and birds of prey such as bald eagles; a variety of reptiles including alligators and giant Galapagos tortoises; squirrel and capuchin monkeys, and gibbons, whose raucous whoops can be heard across campus.

“In addition to its excellence as an academic program, the zoo has become a great laboratory for some of our other academic classes,” said Anne Kress, Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs. Campuswide, students use the zoo “to write about ecology and nature and other environmental issues.”

She noted this is especially critical at a time when we’re concerned about sustainability, the environment, and the effects of global warming both nationally and internationally.

“For instance, when the students learn about global warming, they can come to the zoo and learn how those issues will play out,” she said. “It’s a reality check.”

Keeping That Innovative Spirit Alive

In 1980, the zoo convened a board of advisors comprised of professionals from the wildlife and zoo communities to examine all aspects of the curriculum. They determined that students weren’t getting enough hands-on experience. One of the major shifts was in the amount of required lab time, which was then increased.

A student zookeeper cradles a hedgehog.Another key recommendation from the committee has resulted in a growing emphasis on conservation as zoos around the world become parks for endangered species. The zoo has several animals participating in the Species Survival Program set up by the AZA to help manage rare species, including Matschie’s tree kangaroos, Asian small-clawed otters, red-ruffed lemurs, white-handed gibbons, Guam rails, and soon to come, an endangered snail, ocelot, and beach mouse.

“If you are going to train students who will be in the zoo field and didn’t have them working with either endangered species or rare species [which require special paperwork], you would not be completing your task,” said Brown.

The board revisits the zoo every other year to help keep the curriculum up to date. Current board members include animal celebrity Jack Hanna, Lehnhardt, and Craig Dinsmore, Executive Director of Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City.

Keepers Don’t Just Work With Animals

In the early years, the zoo wasn’t open to the public and interacting with people was not emphasized. Public education to promote conservation and animal welfare, and community service, are central components of the curriculum. Brown said the more the public knows about animals, the better chance of success at passing legislation to protect them.

“As we realized where our place in the zoo field really was and what the job of the zookeeper really was, public interaction increased, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” said Brown. “We tell our students, ‘Every time you answer a small child’s question, you are winning hearts for animals.’ If they aren’t interacting with the public every single day, they are not doing their jobs.”

The zoo brings approximately 33,000 visitors to campus each year. It’s open to the public daily, year round, except during college breaks. Students lead all zoo tours and are posted at exhibits during open houses to answer visitors’ questions.

The Zoo Animal Technology program supports multiple community programs, such as fundraisers for the March of Dimes, American Heart Association, and Children’s Miracle Network. Public awareness events include Sea Turtle Awareness Day, in which the zoo sets up exhibits and interactive games that teach sea turtle conservation. This year, zoo staff, under the leadership of Education Specialist Tarah Jacobs, are planning a big event for Earth Day called Party for the Planet. The Teaching Zoo also offers educational programs for youth via summer camp classes and a community education program called Junior Zoologist.

Trick-or-treaters enjoy boo at the zooThroughout the year, the trails are filled with school groups. Parents schedule birthday parties at the zoo, and the Boo at the Zoo event is a beloved Halloween tradition that attracts more than 7,000 trick-or-treaters annually. Student zookeepers dress in costume, decorate the entire zoo, and give out more than 87,000 pieces of candy. Zoo “admission” for Boo is one canned good per person that is donated to a local food bank. In 2006, the zoo donated more than 5,000 canned goods to the needy.

The zoo’s latest community service effort is the Rotary Reading Safari, a cooperative pilot project with the Gainesville Rotary Club. At-risk third graders come to the zoo after school for two hours a week for activities and reading tutoring. If the program is successful, it could eventually expand into a year-round after-school program, according to Henry (Buz) Bireline, Assistant Director.

Rotary reading safari students and their bird puppets, with zoo education specialist tarah jacobs.“We feel it is a good educational tool to demonstrate to our students our commitment to the community and that life is not just about yourself,” said Bireline, who graduated from the program in 1992 and returned as an instructor in 1995.

In 2004, the zoo was closed for a month after hurricanes Jeanne and Frances felled more than 85 trees. None of the animals were hurt, but three enclosures were destroyed. The new class of zoo students had only been in the program a month. They spent the following two months cutting and hauling debris, a great opportunity for future zookeepers to learn about the keeper’s role in emergencies.

“It was saddening, but also very rewarding to see how the students really rose to the challenge,” said Bireline. Camaraderie and teamwork are mainstays of the program, making zoo students popular across campus and in the community.

Bireline is responsible for spearheading the zoo’s marketing programs. SFCC is a finalist for a $5.8 million grant that would fund the zoo’s expansion in conjunction with projects at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, another Gainesville tourist attraction.

Graduates of the Zoo Animal Technology program work in 43 states and at more than 154 institutions. “We have been putting people out in zoo jobs for a heck of a long time now,” said Brown. “It’s so much fun to go out and visit zoos, because I always run into my former students. Then I get to listen to their stories. For five semesters, they listened to mine. I turn around and bring their stories right back into the program and use them in class.”

It’s a great circle of college students turning their passion for animals into a career as animal keepers, 37 years in the making, spread across the nation, conserving endangered species, and having an impact around the world.


Julie Garrett is communication specialist at Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Florida.

Photos courtesy of Santa Fe Community College


Cynthia Wilson, Editor