WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Rachel Dalton has wanted to be an animal doctor since she was old enough to begin thinking about what she would do when she grew up.
She had a passion for the exotic animals commonly found in zoos. Her only problem was figuring out the best place to go to college for a degree that was more specific than just biology.
Also a horse-lover, Dalton, 19, of Blacklick, applied to Otterbein University because of its equine-science degrees. But when she discovered that the small, liberal-arts college in Westerville was starting a zoo and conservation-science program, she knew it was the place for her. Only four other four-year schools in the nation have similar programs.
“Unlike a lot of other programs, you get to start working with animals early on so you not only learn stuff in the classroom but you get to apply it in the real world,” Dalton said.
During a shift at the Ohio Wildlife Center recently, she and another student, Trevor Smoot, scooped up Wendell the Woodchuck and moved him to a big cage where he could root through wet leaves and feast on apples, leafy greens and his favorite treat, sweet corn. Wendell was found in a Fairfield County backyard in December 2007, emaciated and rolling on the ground — common symptoms of a parasite called raccoon roundworm. Permanently impaired, he now lives at the center.
The program, just a year old, has more students applying to get in than the 20 spots available, said Anna Young, an assistant biology and earth-sciences professor who oversees it. Because of the intense interest, students must be admitted as a pre-zoo and conservation-science major before they can apply during the spring semester of their freshman year, she said. They also have to take an introductory zoos and zookeeping class and do well in biology, chemistry and pre-calculus courses to have a chance at getting in.
Once admitted, students learn about animals and conservation; the relationship between humans and animals; and the complex problems that occur in zoos or in wild-animal populations, Young said. They also take a lot of science classes, including animal nutrition, coral reef ecology, vertebrate and invertebrate biology, wildlife reproduction and zookeeping.
To give students firsthand experiences with animals, Otterbein has joined with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Ohio Wildlife Center. Students are introduced to both facilities during their freshman year and do a semester-long practicum at the Wildlife Center their sophomore year and another at the zoo their junior year.
Starting next year, the Columbus Zoo also will offer 10 internships so Otterbein students can work closely with zookeepers in a single area. There will be other internship opportunities at the Wilds, other zoos and with other groups such as the Audubon Society and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“By providing students with hands-on opportunities and giving them a first-person view of real-world conservation, this partnership with Otterbein allows the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to inspire future conservationists as well as animal-care specialists,” said Tom Stalf, the zoo’s president and CEO.
After tending to Wendell the Woodchuck, Smoot, 19, moved Eleanor, an eastern fox snake, from a travel carrier to her cage after she returned from an educational program. The snake has lived at the Wildlife Center since 2003, when she was confiscated from a man who was illegally selling native snakes.
“I love, love, love being outside,” said Smoot, of West Liberty, about an hour northwest of Columbus. “And while a lot of my peers want to work with exotic wildlife at zoos, I’m interested in native Ohio species and want to become a field and stream biologist.”
The program stands out from many other schools because it allows students to earn a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree, depending on their interests, said Barbara Ray, the Ohio Wildlife Center’s director of education.
The B.S. degree was designed to prepare students for graduate studies in biology, veterinary medicine, zoology and other related fields. And the B.A. prepares students to work in zoos or in the field of conservation, including biological consulting or working for state or federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“I can already predict based on the quality of the program that Otterbein will be producing the next generation of decision-makers and leading wildlife keepers, veterinarians and scientists,” Ray said.