Zoo and Aquarium Science

An Interdisciplinary Concentration at MSU

Objective and Background

Today's zoos and aquaria have undergone a transformation. They act as an interface between humans and animals. They are living laboratories for gaining extensive data about animal behavior, reproduction, physiology, nutrition, genetics, and disease, to name a few areas. The role of the educator/scientists has expanded to outreach programs that now permeate our news and entertainment media as well as schools. Zoo and Aquarium Science at Michigan State University aims to unite concepts of biology, education and design to stimulate interest in global interdependence and maintenance of biodiversity. This unique Bachelor of Science in Zoology degree concentration offered by the Department of Integrative Biology is designed to prepare students for the demands of a career in modern zoos and aquaria. Students who have graduated from the program can be found in all lines of employment in zoos and aquaria throughout the country, as well as government agencies and businesses.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

In conjunction with fulfilling the guiding principles of Michigan State University, the curriculum has been designed to be interdisciplinary so as to include many of the critical subjects encountered in the zoo industry. To that end, the Department of Integrative Biology interacts with faculty in Veterinary Medicine; Fisheries and Wildlife; Community Sustainability; Landscape Architecture and Design; Entomology; and Animal Science. The core requirements for the concentration demand that students complete classes in core subjects such as genetics, animal behavior, ecology, and vertebrate comparative anatomy, along with specially designed classes and seminars in Zoo and Aquarium Science. Students must supplement such required classes with electives that allow specialization within the field. Once all university, college, and department requirements are met, they will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in their Major Program with Concentration in Zoo and Aquarium Science.

The program benefits immeasurably from the cooperation and participation of the AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) accredited zoos and aquaria. Executive staff from many institutions routinely lecture to our students on such topics as zoo animal nutrition; principles of animal husbandry; zoo ethics and responsibility; and behavioral welfare. The value of our well-established links with zoos and aquaria becomes priceless in our ability to place students in internships that reflect the student's interests and build upon their experience.

In addition to the Department of Integrative Biology, students may obtain the concentration in Zoo and Aquarium Science from the departments of Fisheries and Wildlife; Community Sustainability; Entomology; and School of Planning, Design, and Construction.

Professional Internship

Each student in the concentration undertakes a 14-week internship at a zoo or aquarium. These internships are professional work experiences that take place under the supervision of experienced professionals or specialists. The host institution assigns the experience responsibilities, provides staff to supervise students, reviews and ultimately grades their performance. Student interns are expected to become familiar with the day-to-day operations of their host facility and interact with staff and visitors whenever possible. Most host facilities will expect the interns to bring with them the latest skills and recent advances in their science. Zoos and aquaria receive both intermediate and long-term benefits from the internship program and their participation in the concentration, to the extent that we now have zoos and aquaria calling us for interns.

The benefits of the internship experience are many, and include:

  • merging the student's academic background with the practical work necessary for the host facility to achieve its goals
  • helping to produce the foundation for a background in the zoo & aquarium industry
  • developing interpersonal and communication skills
  • learning how subunits within an administrative facility interconnect to achieve common goals

Students always find the internship experience eye-opening and benefit from real-life educational opportunities impossible to replicate in the classroom. The following quotations are taken from students' reports on completion of the internship.

I was able to do mostly everything a keeper would do in their day-to-day activity. The internship allowed me to expand on what I had learned through school and previous animal care experiences. Lincoln Park Zoo Intern

I think that the skills that I developed by learning from the keepers and working alone will help me at the start of my zoo career. It gave me a higher level of confidence in my ability to work alone with the animals and my ability to make decisions. Zoo Montana Intern

Watching the way employees interact with each other and with management taught me volumes; I have been so focused on the animal aspect of my major that I had forgotten the human element. The human element is one of the hardest parts of a zookeeper's job. Potter Park Zoo Intern

Go into the experience with an open mind, and a strong interest to learn as much as you can in the short time you have. Ask as many questions as you can think of. Make sure you understand every detail. A very important part is to enjoy yourself. If you are not having fun, maybe you should rethink your career. Virginia Aquarium Intern

The Fair Labor Standards Act

Institutions are not in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act by participating in a service learning or academic internship, as long as the following criteria are met in the sponsor-intern relationship:

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the employer's facilities, is similar to that which would be given at a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees [students].
  • The trainees [students] do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision.
  • The employer [host] that provides the training derives no immediate advantages from the activities of the trainees [students] and, on occasions, his/her operation may be impeded.
  • The trainees [students] are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
  • The employer [host] and the trainee [student] is not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.