- Associated Press - Saturday, July 30, 2016

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Three-year-old Sofia Testa, a large cat litter scooper in each small hand, gingerly picked up one big pine cone after another, balanced them for a few steps, then plunked them into a bin.

The youngster with a fondness for reptiles was taking a run at the “zookeeper Olympics” station at the entrance of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo’s National Zookeeper Week event. The pine cones simulated big blobs of animal waste - the sort a zookeeper might find herself shoveling.

Testa’s parents, Michael and Carmen, said they thought their budding herpetologist - she gets a kick out of alligators, snakes and turtles - and her 6-month-old brother would enjoy the event.

“She loves the animals, loves the zoo,” her father said. “She’s very much into reptiles, likes them a lot.”

Families roamed the zoo grounds, watched zookeeper talks and animal demonstrations, peered into exhibits and talked to students about what they’ve learned in the five-semester program.

The students, who come in as “basics,” progress to “mids” and then become “seniors,” must barrel through the program with barely a break, program adviser Bobbi Cabaret warned a group of would-be students gauging interest in the program and taking an air-conditioned break from the humidity.

“There’s no breaks in between semesters, no holidays,” she said. “Animals have to be taken care of every day.”

The college’s teaching zoo, which opened in 1970, is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, making it unique among college zoo programs.

Students Krista Case, 23, and Katie Lukens, 22, manned the zookeeper Olympics station while Sofia and other youngsters scooped fake poop, caught items in a net and rolled extension cords, all simulations of zookeeper tasks.

Students, themselves included, often come in with an affinity for one kind of animal, but are exposed to so many through the program that they fall in love with another species altogether, they said.

Case said she went in hoping to become a hoofstock keeper, which would mean working with large zoo animals, like rhinos or giraffes. But now, like Sofia, she’s learned to appreciate reptiles’ particular charm.

“Honestly, I will work with just about anything right now,” Case said. “Even snakes. And I never thought that would be possible.”

Lukens said students appreciate the field trips and networking they get to do that helps them meet people in positions to hire them when they finish the associate of science program.

“They’re specifically gearing us to get jobs,” she said. “We are networking, constantly.”

The program is accepting applications until Sept. 30 for students who would begin their studies in May 2017.


Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, https://www.gainesvillesun.com

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