“I Went To College Inside of a Zoo”
By: Jacquelyn Orkiz
Imagine walking to your college classes while hearing the chorus of lions roaring, coyotes howling, parrots squawking, and gibbons singing. For two years this was my reality; I went to school working towards a degree that was on the grounds of a real live zoo. It was two of the best and hardest years of my life.
It was all worth it because now I get to do something I love every single day, and I owe most of that to this school.
What’s a College Zoo?
So what school is this exactly? Well it is a special college program offered at Moorpark College. Moorpark College is a community college located in Southern California just outside of Los Angeles county. It offers several degree options, as well as, specialty programs.
One of those programs is the Exotic Animal Training and Management program. This 22-month long program is designed to teach its students all the aspects surrounding the care and knowledge of working with exotic animals. To give students a real hands-on feel of what that is like, the program even has its own zoo on the campus grounds. Students are essential in running this zoo, which is appropriately named America’s Teaching Zoo.
Now as fun and cool as all of that may sound, this program is not easy by any means, nor is it easy to get into. Once a year the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (also known as EATM) accepts applications for their program. Some years there have been a few hundred applicants, but only 52 students are accepted by lottery. Once accepted, you have about 3 months to figure out how you’re going to step away and completely change your life for the next 22 months. And I am not exaggerating when I say you have to leave your current life; I knew students who had to uproot their lives completely in order to be in this program. Students who moved across the country, moved away from their fiancé/spouse, and some even quit established careers. It’s rigorous academically also; in your first semester alone you take about 18 units worth of classes. So there is A LOT of studying involved. Passing all of your classes is essential to staying in the program.
There are several different ways to be let go from the program, and failing classes is unfortunately the biggest reason. On top of that, you have very long days plus weekends that require your attendance on the zoo since that’s when the zoo is open to the public; so you don’t get many days off. Needless to say, you have to be dedicated to this experience if you want to do it. It may not sound fun or appealing for some people, but for those students who commit to it, they are dying to get started.
Life at Zoo School
Do you remember a time where you felt stressed out, scared, overwhelmed and excited at the same time?
I definitely do.
That pretty much sums-up my first week of school as an EATM student. It was a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions. I was handed syllabus after syllabus for all of my classes, was told that I could no longer have my hair down and needed socks taller than my boots, and that four days a week I had to spend the first 2 hours of my day cleaning up animal poop.
Most of those mornings started at 6:30 am. Though technically 6:30 is considered late, because roll call starts at 6:30 on the dot. That means if I walk through that door when roll starts, I’m done for. So I was usually there by 6:15. On top of all of that, I was surrounded by 51 other students whom I have never met before, that are now going to be at the zoo with me everyday and in all of my classes. Thank goodness part of our new uniform included wearing a name tag.
After an early morning roll call, I walk out on the zoo to start cleaning. I get instructed by a second year student on what to do. They tell me where to scrub, what to rake, and to not interact with the animals. Talking to or interacting with the animals in the zoo as a first year is simply not allowed. It’s one of the many strict rules of the program that I’m told will help me learn patience, which will be very helpful in my future career.
So even though a goat might try nibbling at my shorts, or Sierra, the domestic dog, sniffs my shoes, I am supposed to ignore them. It’s pretty challenging to ignore animals when you are someone who loves animals. Especially when you get to be so close to so many animals you’ve never been around before. I mean I could be raking an enclosure and be a few feet away from a 500 pound galapagos tortoise. It’s pretty hard to just ignore that, but what was cool is that I was surrounded by people who all felt the same way.
Those 51 strangers that were in my class, were quickly becoming some of my closest friends. This made getting through the hard times of the program easier, and made the best times of the program even better because you could share it with some of your favorite people.
Fast-forward to a few months later and I am sitting in a ticket booth with a stack of flashcards in my hand. On the weekends, first year students rotate working different tasks that the zoo needed while it was open, for example running the ticket booth.
I always tried to make sure I got a ticket booth shift because it meant I could sneak in some studying between waves of guests. Our animal diversity class required us to memorize the phylum, class, order, family and scientific name of about 400 animals. We had 30 new animals to memorize a week, which meant I carried my flashcards with me so that could study whenever I had a chance. These weekly quizzes came on top of regular exams, and that was just one class; so there was never enough time for all the studying we had to do. Even though classes were hard and the schedule had us at the zoo practically everyday, it was something we all did because we knew that it would be worth it once we got to work with the animals. That was coming up sooner than we thought because in our second semester we got to request some of the animals we wanted to work with. Knowing that was coming helped me push through all-night study sessions and the stress of exams.
Animal assignments, manager duties, and rat training were just a few of the things that took over my life! Second semester was a blur to be honest. It’s like the first semester was only a glimpse of the crazy work-load that was about to come my way. The academics were still challenging (I mean we had to train a rat to run a maze for one class), but now we had to also start balancing our added zoo responsibilities, such as manager duties. We were all assigned an aspect of the zoo to help run and manage. You can help manage our records, zoo safety, public relations, animal diets, and even medical needs of the animals alongside our veterinary staff. I was fortunate to be chosen to be a medical manager. It was an extremely rewarding position because I got to assist the vet team during animal procedures and learn so much about the medical side of animal care. But it was an immensely time consuming position to have, trying to balance these duties with my other growing responsibilities became challenging. At this point in the program we, as first years, have become experts at giving school tours and helping run our educational animal presentations. Both of which occurred almost daily. This meant I could walk out of a morning class one day and either enjoy a break, or run off to give a 30 minute animal presentation to 100 kindergarten students.
My days were constantly different and always busy. Some days were special, like the day we received our first animal assignments. We don’t know when we will get them, so it comes as a surprise. We are all assigned four animals to start; an herbivore, a carnivore, a bird, and a primate. I freaked out when I found out that I was assigned four of my favorite animals I was hoping to work with; a baboon, a badger, a beaver and a ground hornbill. Yet this was only the beginning; because now we had to take on the task of learning how to care for these animals from our second years. This transition lasted almost two months because the check off process required us to really get to know the animal’s needs and the responsibility we will have as their trainers. Did I mention that in this semester we had also been working on planning a special event that spans multiple weekends and brings in the most guests to the zoo each year?
On top of everything else, I had to do a 30 hour animal observation for a class paper; so describing that semester as busy is an understatement.
Soon the parking lot around the college became empty and we had days well over 90 degrees. This meant that it was officially summer and most of the college was closed, except for us of course. We were now responsible for all the animals at the zoo because the second years had graduated, and we had to do everything on our own without our second year mentors. We now had half the bodies to run the zoo, but it was still a fun semester. Our primate class kicked off the infamous EATM field trips. The field trips were one of my all-time favorite things about this school. It meant I got to visit many animal facilities that I had never been to before and meet people actively working in the field. Plus, it usually meant we got to meet a lot of cool animals.
That summer I was able to meet a giraffe, touch a sloth, and even have monkeys jump around my shoulders. I didn’t care for one minute that I didn’t have the summer off like most college students, because those few moments with the animals reminded me what all the hard work was for. Back at the zoo, I was getting my first chance to start training some of the zoo animals, because now we had to put our knowledge to the test. Literally, because we were graded on our training with the animals. My first two training animals were Willow, the beaver and Beaker, the Abyssinian ground hornbill.
I learned so much from these two animals, because my training did not go well. Things did not go even close to my plans, but that’s how it goes when you work with animals. It was the unwritten lesson of flexibility and patience. You can’t always predict what an animal is going to do or how they will learn, so you always have to be willing to throw your original plan out the window and just go with it. Animals learn at their own pace and in different ways, just like humans, which I learned first-hand with these two animals. Thankfully our professor knows this very well and is understanding when you have to change your plan several times; so luckily I didn’t fail my training final.
Before I knew it, I was sitting in the bleachers of our outdoor theater looking across at 52 new bright-eyed and excited first year students.
The staff officially announced us as second years and we all knew we hit a milestone in the program. We were no longer the new guys, and we were the ones who first years were turning to for advice. “Do we actually need to learn the scientific names of 400 animals?!” Yes, yes you do. By the time you become a second year, your last two semesters fly by. Now I found myself running up and down the zoo taking care of nine animals some days. That might not seem like a lot, but when you have a baboon who you give enrichment to every hour, a badger that needs a training session on stage, a lion who doesn’t want to take her supplements, and a macaw who wants your attention all day; time suddenly disappears. At least my class schedule is much lighter now, so that I can spend most of my day with the animals, which is mostly why your second year is the best year.
You get to spend all day with the animals, take field trips seeing other zoos, and even spend 3 weeks shadowing at other facilities. We have a class in our second year where the requirement is to actually go visit and spend a week shadowing trainers at another animal facility.
This was one of the things I was looking forward to the most, because my ultimate dream was to work with marine mammals but our zoo did not have any marine mammals. So this was my first real opportunity to see first-hand what it was like to be a dolphin and sea lion trainer. I traveled to two amazing places and saw what my future could be like; and it absolutely confirmed that I was right where I was meant to be. It also started to put on the pressure of what comes next. Our lives were so busy on the zoo that it was hard to start thinking about life after EATM. It was stressful to hear staff members start giving advice on resumes and interviews. Now all of a sudden I’m using study breaks to look at job postings and applications. As scary as it was to start thinking about the real world and getting a job, it was exciting to think about what the future could bring. But also, it was sad to think about the end of such a big part of my life. The emotional roller coaster had come full circle.
Graduation was nothing more than bitter-sweet. Not only was I saying goodbye to animals and a zoo that had taken over my whole life, but I was also saying goodbye to some incredible people too. Those 51 strangers on that first day quickly became a second family. We spent so much time together (too much sometimes) that it was hard to imagine not seeing them everyday. But the best thing about being a part of something as unique as this school, is that it brings people together from all over who have the same passion; which is something we will always share.
Then once we all graduate and go off on our own paths back into the real world, we get to do what we love everyday and try to inspire people to love animals as much as we do. And if people ask me how do they get to do what I do? I can tell them about how I went to college inside of a zoo.