Lions and Tigers and Porcupines, Oh My!

At one California institution, students may be graded on how well they brush a horse’s teeth. But these future zookeepers and conservationists wouldn’t have it any other way.

December 13, 2022
A woman in a blue shirt holds a red-tailed hawk on her forearm.
An Exotic Animal Training and Management student presents a red-tailed hawk to visitors during the zoo’s annual holiday event.
(Dina Pielaet/Moorpark College)

It’s finals season at Moorpark College, a community college in Ventura County, Calif. For students in the Exotic Animal Training and Management program, that requires some pretty unconventional demonstrations of knowledge.

As part of her assessment, Abbey Quilter has to get a female hyena named Kadogo to present her paw to have blood drawn. Quilter trained her for the task by rewarding Kadogo with her favorite ground meat treat every time she complied. The work pays off; Kadogo executes the move flawlessly during finals.

“She got me an A because she’s incredible,” Quilter says with a smile, reaching through the bars of the cage to scratch Kadogo’s head in gratitude. “Being given a shot, being poked by a needle is not a fun experience for anyone. It’s the same thing for animals, but you can’t explain to an animal that it’s healthy.”

Observed via Zoom, the hyena stretches, interrupting Quilter’s train of thought. “Oh, big yawn!” she says.

Other students have to demonstrate their ability to brush a miniature horse’s teeth (“His teeth are pretty bad,” a trainer notes) or coax a porcupine to stand on her hind legs for easy access to her belly.

These tasks may seem like the stuff of Disney princess movies, but they come with the territory for students in the EATM program.

The two-year program, one of two of its kind in the United States, is unique in its focus on animal behavior and training. At the end of the program, which requires a handful of prerequisite courses to enter, students walk away with a certificate in exotic animal training and management.

Cohorts of 35 students come from around the country to work, train and study at America’s Teaching Zoo, as Moorpark’s zoo is known, and graduates often go on to become zookeepers or to work in conservation, protecting wild animals, their habitats and their ecosystems. The skills they learn translate to several other professions as well, including working with bomb-sniffing dogs and training dolphins for shows.

For what it’s worth, EATM isn’t Moorpark’s only successful program. The college also boasts successful performing arts, nursing and biotechnology programs. As of 2018, it had a six-year completion rate of 64 percent, which was the highest of any California community college. Recently, it was named one of the top 10 best community colleges in America by the Aspen Institute.

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Life as a Zookeeper

A day in the EATM program starts at 6:30 a.m., when students must be on campus to clean enclosures, feed the animals, take classes and run shows for visiting schoolchildren, among other things.

A woman wearing a satchel around her waist holds a white-faced opossum in her arms.Each student is responsible for a collection of animals each semester (some are yearlong assignments). For second-year student Alison Ward, that list includes a coyote, an African-crested porcupine, an orange-winged amazon (a type of parrot), an African serval (a species of wild cat), a potbellied pig and a gibbon, with whom she said she has a special relationship. Since the beginning of the summer, Ward has worked to help the small primate—a relative newcomer—adapt to the zoo environment and become calmer.

While Ward is giving Inside Higher Ed a virtual tour of the zoo’s grounds, the gibbon, named Tembeling, howls at her in an apparent greeting.

“Hi, buddy!” she replies. “He’s probably the one that I’ve learned the most from.”

Ward had been interested in animal sciences since high school, when she attended a zoology magnet program in Southern California and first learned about Moorpark’s program. In college, she studied psychology in the hopes of pursuing a career in animal cognition and behavior, but after she graduated she spent time traveling across the country and working in fields like information technology.

She applied to the EATM program in 2021. Now just months away from graduation, she dreams of working in research either at a zoo or an aquarium. She hopes her work will show the benefits of animal training, a practice that she says is being increasingly utilized at zoos.

According to the St. Louis Zoo’s website, “Training allows keepers and veterinarians to do their jobs more safely and easily. It also allows animals to receive the best care possible through their own willing involvement in the process. While training is often used to perform husbandry tasks, it is also enriching for the animals. It provides a challenge for them and offers them the opportunity to earn a reward that they find worthwhile. Training is rapidly becoming a vital tool in animal care.”

Animal Retirement Home

Moorpark’s emphasis on training is no surprise given its origins: the zoo opened about 50 years ago as a home for animals retiring from careers in show business. As movie studios closed their animal facilities, the college took in those animals, acting as a “rescue–slash–retirement home,” as Moorpark president Julius Sokenu put it.

“This is in the 1970s, and there were animals who worked in Hollywood, who worked their career life cycle, so to speak, and often they would be looking for a place for them to go,” Sokenu said. America’s Teaching Zoo was developed as a place where the animals would be taken care of but could also continue to be mentally engaged by the zookeepers.

Some remnants of old Hollywood pageantry remain. The EATM curriculum includes teaching students how to put on animal shows in the small amphitheater near the zoo’s entrance; students must learn everything from scriptwriting to stage management.

But the program has also increased emphasis on conservation in the years since its founding, as the zoo industry as a whole has shifted in that direction. Whereas zoos were once places where animals were kept for people’s entertainment and enjoyment, zoos now often protect endangered animals and those that can’t be returned to the wild due to injury. They also conduct more research on conservation. (Even so, many dissidents remain critical of zoos and skeptical of their motives.)

Two beautiful Bengal tigers.ATZ houses several animals that can’t be returned to the wild. A great horned owl with a wing injury lives next door to an eagle that also couldn’t be re-released. A tiger named Neil, who made national headlines after being featured in a YouTube video by sensationalist internet personality Logan Paul—and again after his former owner was convicted of unlawful possession of a wild animal—also lives at ATZ. Neil came to ATZ extremely ill, having failed to receive necessary veterinary care while with his previous owner, The Ventura County Star reported. The zoo is currently building a $3.5 million habitat for Neil and a female tiger sent from a South Carolina zoo to be his companion.

Moved by such stories, a growing number of students are coming to the program with a specific interest in working in conservation.

“People’s interests have changed. The industry has changed. Just the focus on conservation in the last 20 years has changed,” said Brenda Woodhouse, an instructor in the EATM program. She said that the college added a conservation lecture course about 15 years ago.

(Yes, on top of managing a zoo, students also have to attend lectures just like everyone else. Their finals in their lecture courses take place the week after their lab finals.)

What Winter Break?

Second-year students will start their next rotation of animals on Jan. 6, with only a week off for vacation in between semesters. Because the students are responsible for the welfare of the zoo animals, they generally only get about three days off each month and often work holidays and weekends.

“The program is designed to be very hands-on. It’s designed very much like you would have a residency in medical school,” Sokenu said.

That intensity has contributed to an incredibly high job-placement rate; Sokenu estimates that 90 percent of the program’s graduates find careers in the industry.

According to Ward, the rigorous schedule is a blessing and a curse. The hard work tires her out, she said, but has also taught her resilience that she’ll likely need in her future career and reminded her of her passion for animals.

As for how she’s handling the end of the semester, she has good news to report: Rebel, the porcupine, successfully stood on her hind legs when prompted.

“Finals do get stressful,” she said. “But, as we all know, that’s with any school.”

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Johanna Alonso

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