(for Sacred Heart University)
By Mike Lauterborn
Fairfield, CT – You might call them Dr. Dolittle disciples as they are literally getting the opportunity to talk to the animals, walk with the animals and to even try to learn their languages.
Through a special collaboration between Sacred Heart University’s biology department and the Lionshare Zoo in Greenwich, CT, SHU students considering careers in veterinary medicine are gaining hands-on experience with exotic animals. The zoo is a private facility focused on conservation and education, owned by Marcella Leone. Set up on one part of a horse farm, the zoo houses such rare and endangered species as orangutans, cheetahs, gibbons, a Bactrian camel, giraffes and lemurs. Some of the animals were obtained by private citizens through an amnesty program, while others were zoo surplus. The zoo’s prime focus is breeding and conservation education.
“We try to get students that aren’t doing a research project to do an internship at one of many organizations with which our department has contact,” said Dr. Jennifer Mattei, associate professor of biology at the school. “We’ve had students working at Lionshare for the past five years. Their role is typically to shadow a vet who makes a weekly visit to check on animal health, and to learn about the day-to-day care of animals and operation of the facility. Some of the work also involves cleaning and painting cages.”
Mattei said that one current student, senior Jacqueline Escobar, started there as an intern a year ago and, as a step-up in her experience, was asked to pick a particular animal and design and implement an enrichment device for it, to improve its quality of life in captivity. She created a device for a giraffe – a feeding box wherein the giraffe has to undo a latch with its tongue, open a lid and reach in with its tongue to gather up an apple reward.
“There are three giraffes and each had to figure out the system on their own,” said Mattei. “The object is to create stimulation, which this did.”
Zoo director Leone was very pleased with Escobar’s success and the student has since been hired as a part-time keeper while she finishes her degree. To allow other students to have a like experience, Mattei and colleague Tom Terleph, an assistant biology professor, created and co-taught this past semester a “Zoos, Museums and Aquariums” class that incorporated the building of an enrichment device as a final project.
Two devices emerged from the class and, at the conclusion of the semester late April, they were brought down to the zoo, installed and tested to see if the animals would interact with them. One device was a rope tied across the lemur cage that was fitted with a series of plastic cups that had to be separated to gain access to a food treat. The second device was geared to the orangutans and was essentially a board through which holes had been made, with cups behind them containing honey or fruit slices. The orangutans’ challenge was to take a stick, poke it through the holes and fish out the food. Both devices achieved desirable results.
This summer, Terleph, who is also an animal behavior researcher, will work with gibbons at the zoo, recording their sounds and calls. He will be assisted by sophomore Caitlin Neary, who is just beginning her internship. Mattei says the experience will help Neary decide on the type of practice she may want to pursue in the future.”
In summary, Mattei said, “Our program provides a great way to fill the facility’s needs while our students gain onsite education. It’s a unique relationship that we have with this particular zoo and adds to the value of Sacred Heart offerings to students pursuing veterinary careers.”