COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Students in Ohio State University’s recent Zoo Science and Management class never met Lulu the gorilla. Never worked with her. But cared when she got sick. And felt people’s hurt when she died.
“I was impressed by how much the students in the class cared about Lulu’s welfare,” said Danielle Ross, education director at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Lulu’s home and where the class met. “They were very concerned about how she was doing and kept asking for updates. I was touched by their worry and respect. They recognized how much her death impacted our zoo family.”
A second-year partnership between the zoo and Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), the class taught students about working at zoos and aquariums -- and showed it to them too. It met at the zoo on winter quarter Saturdays.
Ross and Stan Gehrt, a wildlife professor in the school, planned and organized it. A dozen of the zoo’s experts taught it.
“Having zoo personnel serve as the instructors allows them to determine what content they think is necessary to prepare the students for careers in zoos and aquariums,” Gerht said. “It gives the students a head start in some of the basics that they can’t get from existing courses” -- a possible leg up after graduation. The class, with 25 students, was full.
Lulu died of unknown causes Jan. 24 after having seizures that started two days earlier -- a Saturday when the class was meeting, though elsewhere on the grounds. She was motherly, elderly, a staff and visitor favorite.
“The people who work at zoos care very deeply about animals and their conservation,” said Ross, one of the zoo staff’s many Ohio State alumni. “I hope this class gives students the opportunity to see that passion so as they go forward in their careers, we can continue to find ways to develop partnerships to advance conservation.”
How It Got Started
Gehrt first suggested the class to the zoo’s former director, Jeff Swanagan, who liked the idea. When Swanagan unexpectedly passed away, Ross picked up the baton.
“Jeff very much supported the idea of advancing our conservation mission by partnering with Ohio State to reach university-level students,” said Ross, who was happy to team with higher education and her alma mater in particular.
“In order for zoos to stay relevant, we need to work with universities like OSU,” she said. “College students and professors have the ability to see things differently, and we need to be open to feedback so we can continue to progress in our animal husbandry and conservation initiatives.”
The students, of course, gain too. They get a deep, wide look at zoo careers, get groomed for internships and jobs down the road, and also see new possibilities.
“Many of the students come into the course with a preconceived notion of what aspect of zoo management they’re most interested in,” Gehrt said, “and they’re surprised that they’re fascinated by subjects they knew little, if anything, about.”
Gehrt sees strong interest in zoo careers not just by SENR students but by other Ohio State students as well. And he said that over the years, many have found work at the Columbus Zoo. The zoo currently lists 54 Ohio State alumni among its regular employees, Ross included. She earned a master’s degree in environmental education, communication and interpretation through SENR in 2001.
Wait List to Get In
Gehrt plans the class from SENR’s side of things, Ross from the zoo’s, and together they book the instructors, all of them zoo staff. Gehrt said the breadth of the lineup gives the students “primary exposure to a wide range of zoo professionals.” That same breadth, he added, “illustrates the zoo’s commitment to the course.”
Ohio State offers the class just once a year, during winter quarter, and Gehrt said there was a wait list from last year to get into it this time around. He’s considering adding an internship component -- at the Columbus Zoo in summer -- but for now, he said, the class simply gives students an upper hand when applying for other internships, whether at the Columbus Zoo or elsewhere.
Ross said a highlight this year was Dr. Gwen Myers, the zoo’s veterinarian, telling the class about a challenge she faces: shooting a live animal with a tranquilizer dart while wearing a protective Tyvek suit.
“To demonstrate this, a few brave students got suited up in the Tyvek suit, then jump-started their heart rate and fogged up their face shield by running up and down the stairs,” Ross said. “Finally they were given a dart gun and asked to dart a ‘bobcat,’ which was basically a life-sized bobcat silhouette made out of foam board.
“They quickly learned,” she said with a laugh, “that it wasn’t as easy as they thought.”
‘That’s What Really Inspires Me’
The zoo’s field conservation coordinator, Rebecca Rose, made her own impression. She talked to the class about, among other things, the zoo’s role in supporting conservation in the wild. The only way to save species and ecosystems, she explained, is to understand their unique value. “I would daresay she was one of the students’ favorites,” Ross said.
“I could see how taking care of those animals really changed [animal-sanctuary workers’] lives,” an anonymous student wrote in her class journal after Rose’s lecture. “That’s what really inspires me, the fact that one person, with enough determination and persistence, can make such a difference.”
For her part, Ross said, “I’ve learned something new in each class. It’s been a great partnership.”
The website for this year’s class, which ended in early March, is at go.osu.edu/CSv. Included are the topics, instructors and objectives.
SENR is part of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
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