Creatures As Teachers: America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College prepares students for careers in exotic animal care.

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By Marina Dunbar

One of the many amazing aspects of living in Ventura County is our rich diversity. Of course, a Ventura native can always point to the diversity of our cultures and people, but one may not be aware of the diverse range of wildlife that have taken up residence here. America’s Teaching Zoo, an extension of Moorpark College, is home to some of the most exotic animals found anywhere in California. Tucked away in the hills of the campus is the nation’s premier educational program for the management of exotic wildlife.

When first entering the zoo, visitors are immediately greeted by a local favorite. Clarence the 98-year-old Galapagos tortoise is a host of sorts for the zoo, welcoming guests with his rugged yet genial presence. As the oldest and wisest of the animals, Clarence is a perfect symbol for the novelty and resilience of students and staff of the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program.

Zoo Origins

Mara Rodriguez is perhaps the person most responsible for instilling these values of resilience into the EATM program. She has been a part of the zoo’s family for several years and has worked her way up to become the development coordinator.

“I started my journey with America’s teaching zoo as a student in the EATM program,” explains Rodriguez. “I began teaching here the very first year America’s Teaching Zoo opened to the public on the weekend. That was my first job, I was 21 years old and I have been here ever since. I think because I grew up here and my love for the college and the animals and the students, it’s very fitting that I am now the zoo development coordinator. I love to fundraise and help this community grow, and I want to put it on the map where it should be.”

Rodriguez has always had a love for animals and looking after others, so a career that combines wildlife training with educating students seems to be a perfect match. “I found that I really enjoyed the caretaking aspect of it. There was a part of me that really wanted to be a nurturer even at a really young age. I just gravitated towards that aspect of animal care.”

And a gravitation towards animal care is something that many students may not even realize they have until they get to work in a hands-on program such as EATM. But once they discover that passion, it can only grow from there. The origins of the teaching zoo are proof that a love for animal care is a lifelong calling.

The first step towards EATM began in 1971 with William “Briz” Brisby, a biology instructor. He started a single class at Moorpark College called Wild and Exotic Animal Studies, which emphasized the training process of animals as well as behavioral education. As interest for the class increased, the college recognized the need for a program specifically designated for this approach to wildlife studies.

“By 1974, that one class became the major for exotic animal training and management,” says Rodriguez. “Since then, it has continued to grow and continued to be a place where animal care professionals get their training…What’s so unique about this program is that the zoo itself is the classroom. The creatures are the teachers. It’s a zoo run by students and all of us staff are here to be champions for their future.”

An Exotic Program

The students who have the opportunity to work and learn in the EATM program are truly fortunate. One will not find a program quite like this one anywhere else in the country. While there are several other college programs focused on animal studies, few of them are as directly hands-on when it comes to the animals, and even fewer focus on the training aspect of such a diverse range of exotic creatures.

“There is a similar accredited program that focuses on zookeeping in Gainesville, Florida,” notes Rodriguez. “There are similar majors, such as in animal behavior and animal science, but this is truly the only zoo program where we focus on animal training and husbandry with this variety of animals. We have over a hundred different species here at the zoo, so our students are learning from the widest variety of animals we can possibly put in front of them.

“The EATM program is really all-encompassing for our students. It’s made for people who are looking to work in the animal care profession. The day starts at 6:30 with a roll call. If a student is late, they get demerits. We want to instill accountability, punctuality, the value of hard work so we have them start by cleaning. That’s how every day starts, by picking up after the animals, then they feed them, then they go to class. Some of the classes are in a classroom, but some of them are out here in the zoo. We might be giving a tour to an elementary school class and that will be part of our students’ education.”

This emphasis on a strong work ethic is what truly makes the program stand out beyond its range of unique animals. Just like with the other majors of Moorpark College, America’s Teaching Zoo functions to prepare its students to achieve their ambitions and forge lifelong careers doing what they feel most passionate about. If there is a job that requires working with animals, the EATM students are ready for it.

“Our students are really equipped to work in a broad range of careers within the animal profession. Some of them start out as zookeepers and will work their way up to senior keepers and zoo directors. We have some students that go on to work for service organizations such as Guide Dogs of America. Some of our students go on to train all of the animals you see in commercials, movies and television. And others go into wildlife education where they may start a small company that takes animals to churches and assemblies, schools and summer camps. They educate the next generation of animal lovers.”

New Additions

America’s Teaching Zoo is not only working to improve the lives of students but is also constantly working to improve the lives of its resident animals in any way they can. Just recently the zoo held an event celebrating the construction of Rajah’s Retreat, a $3.5 million big cat sanctuary project. Fundraising for the project began in 2017, and thanks in large part to Rodriguez, the zoo has met its goal to begin construction of the new, innovative habitat for two Bengal tigers, Neil and Karma.

“We’re really happy to add Rajah’s Retreat. It’s a really upgraded, modernized exhibit here at the entrance of our zoo,” says Rodriguez. “We’re going to have both Neil and Karma in this exhibit so that the community can watch them play together. We have some other recent additions…We just got a new skunk and ferrets. We had a few new primates join us within the last year as well as a bobcat. We want to make sure we have animals that we can care for their entire lives and that can offer our students a variety of species that they can gain experience from.”

Rajah’s Retreat is expected to be completed in June of 2022, just in time for Neil and Karma to enjoy their summer vacation.

The effort and resilience towards caring for and about animals is at the heart of America’s Teaching Zoo. It is not easy to raise the funds and put in the hours necessary to look after so many exotic creatures, but it is clear that the work could not be more rewarding for the participants.

“The ultimate goal of this program is to teach our students the most modern concepts and ideologies in animal care,” Rodriguez explains. “Also, to teach them animal training as a tool for building a relationship with an animal and connecting that animal to other people. We want to help our students achieve their dreams, go find a job and be happy for the rest of their lives doing something they love.”

It cannot be overstated how significant a feature America’s Teaching Zoo is to the Ventura County community. There is no other program like this anywhere. The presence of these exotic animals and those who train them add substantially to our collective educational and cultural identity. Residents of Ventura County and beyond can support the EATM program by donating through the zoo’s website where a donor even has the option to sponsor a specific animal of their choice. You can also show your support by visiting the zoo, meeting the animals, and attending EATM events. These animals are residents of Ventura County and deserve all the neighborly support fellow residents can provide.

America’s Teaching Zoo

Moorpark College | 7075 Moorpark Road, Moorpark

805.378.1400 | zoo.moorparkcollege.edu

America’s Teaching Zoo is open to the public on
Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It will be closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Tickets: $7-$9; children age 2 and under are free. No cash sales; credit/debit transactions only.

Face coverings are required in all indoor spaces,
regardless of vaccination status.

Wild Lights & Disco Nights

During December, the zoo is offering a special after dark event where guests can walk through a sparkling disco ball forest, see the canopy of lights near Ira the Lion’s den and enjoy the interactive light wall in the Arctic Vibes section. Wild Lights & Disco Nights takes place 6-8:30 p.m.weekends through Dec. 11, and every day Dec. 16-23. Tickets: $7-$11; free for children 2 and under. Advanced tickets recommended.