URI students learn exotic animal management in semester-long class at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Posted on
URI students interact with armadillos
URI students interact with armadillos during a class in zoo animal management at Roger Williams Park Zoo. (Photo by Ayla Fox)

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 26, 2018 – Thirty-five students at the University of Rhode Island are getting a unique experience as the first URI class taught entirely at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. The class in Zoo Animal Management offers a wide variety of knowledge and skills for those interested in careers in animal care.

“A lot happens behind the scenes at zoos, and most people don’t realize what it takes to manage a successful zoo like Roger Williams, so the class provides a broad perspective on everything involved,” said Justin Richard, who teaches the course and a similar one at Mystic Aquarium. “Each week a different professional from the zoo provides content to the students in their area of expertise.”

The students have had lessons about veterinary medicine from the zoo veterinarian, for instance, lessons about animal training from zookeepers, and lessons about engaging the public from zoo educators. They have also had behind-the-scenes tours of the new rainforest exhibit and the zoo’s veterinary hospital and had field trips to the Bronx Zoo in New York City and Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Mass.

Throughout the semester, the students have been creating animal care manuals for an animal of their choice by applying what they have learned about standards of care, exhibit design, animal nutrition, veterinary care, and other topics.

URI senior Jordan Lally enrolled in the class because he had a childhood dream to work in a zoo.

“I have always been curious about how zoos function behind the scenes, and I wanted to get to know how my local zoo provides the best care for the animals it houses,” said Lally, a Cumberland resident studying animal science and computer science. “It was interesting to see just how many people are involved in every single step or process when developing new features for the zoo.”

Senior Samantha Ward, a marine biology and Spanish major from Sudbury, Mass., said the class has inspired her to consider a career in animal care and opened her eyes to the variety of jobs available at zoos and aquariums.

“To me, the most interesting things we’ve learned pertain to the inner workings and logistics of running a zoo,” she said. “We’ve learned the details of quarantine procedures for any animal entering the zoo, the importance and logistics of off-exhibit animal holding, and the management of breeding populations. A lot of this information is not commonly shared with the public, so being able to see behind-the-scenes operations is really a unique experience.”

Cassidy Clark agrees. A senior marine biology major from Williamsburg, Va., she appreciated hearing the perspectives of so many zoo professionals, and she especially enjoyed the behind-the-scenes tours.

“I’ve always known that my career would involve something to do with animals, and for the longest time I thought it would be with marine animals,” she said. “But ever since taking this class, I’m strongly considering something in the field of zoology as well.”

All three students noted that their prior experience in classes taught by Richard was also a factor in their choice to enroll in the course.

Richard worked for more than a decade as a beluga whale trainer at Mystic Aquarium before earning his doctorate at URI. He conducts research at the aquarium on whale reproduction, so he taught lessons in the class on breeding zoo animals, zoo-based research, and the role of zoos and aquariums in society.

“Zoos play an important role in encouraging people to respect animals and the environment,” he said. “That’s increasingly important as people become disconnected from nature. Zoos provide an educational space for people to enjoy nature and connect with animals.”