The Colgate Scene
July 2005

Wildlife lessons

Larissa Comb brings Lulu the dromedary (left) over to see her son Sahara at his corral after a walk around the teaching zoo. "Camels are very social animals," said Comb, "and it was nice to give them an opportunity to interact with each other before I put Lulu back." [Photos by Chuck Brinkman IV]

Larissa Comb '98 has exchanged Wall Street for wildlife.

Four years into a career in finance, the New York native dropped her job, relocated to the West Coast, and enrolled in the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program at Moorpark College in southern California -- spending long days at the zoo, walking a camel, feeding a Yucatan mini-pig -- and prepping for a career in animal research.

But not just any zoo could motivate career-changing, coast-crossing decisions. EATM is a one-of-a-kind program where students get hands-on animal training at a fully functional zoo while simultaneously earning three associate's degrees: one in zookeeping, one in animal behavior management, and one in wildlife education. The program has earned the name "America's Teaching Zoo" for serving double duty as a campus by weekday and public park by weekend.

Although working in a zoo is about as far from a traditional desk job as you can get, the demanding schedule of the Moorpark program offers little time for monkey business. EATM students take a full courseload while "running the zoo from the ground up -- everything from cleaning the bathrooms to vet procedures," said Comb. They also log volunteer hours, staff traveling animal outreach events, and raise more than $80,000 annually, part of the $150,000 cost necessary to keep their coworkers (those would be the animals) fed.

Comb, who majored in biology at Colgate, had entered the finance world when her search for a job in her area of longtime interest, zoology, didn't materialize: she needed hands-on experience. When she first heard about the EATM program on a visit to the San Diego Zoo (a zookeeper gave her a tip on how he landed his position), she figured that might be her ticket into the animal kingdom.

After finding out more about the program, she hesitated at first.

"I was concerned about entering into an associate's program after obtaining a bachelor's from Colgate," Comb explained. "And then I found out that one year, the San Diego Zoo hired almost exclusively from the Exotic Animal Training program." She competed among more than 300 students for 50 spots in the program, which are filled through a lottery.

Boot camp for zookeepers
For the first year of the program, students do not interact with the animals, Comb said. They act as shadows, gaining exposure to the 150 animals under the teaching zoo's care, and instead spend the majority of their time on activities such as cleaning and grunt work. "They want to make sure people aren't coming in here thinking they're going to play with animals all day. Eighty percent of your day is cleaning," she explained. "It's not pretty."

In the second year, students are assigned to specific animals in four categories: birds, carnivores, primates, and herbivores. Comb first worked with a military macaw, bobcat, three spider monkeys, and the mini-pig. Days start early, 6:30 a.m., with cleaning and feeding activities dubbed "area" for the eight sections of the zoo.

Then, for the span of a typical business workday, students intersperse cleaning tasks with classes in anatomy, physiology, animal nutrition, and animal behavior. The day ends with a second round of area. When the zoo opens to the public on weekends, students swap classes for wildlife education shows. Comb reported that the most-requested animals include the lion, baboons, and Schmoo, the sea lion.

For the duration of the 22-month program, students receive only one seven-day vacation in the summer. Although Comb admitted it sounds a little like boot camp, working closely with animals during the second year makes it all worthwhile. On a daily basis, Comb has been responsible for enriching her animals' lives by designing challenges that simulate experiences in the wild, known as behavioral or environmental enrichment. For example, students can set up glorified games of hide and seek in which animals must work to uncover their food, encouraging natural foraging behavior.

Animal trainer-come-performer Larissa Comb as a caterpillar at EATM's Spring Spectacular fundraiser, "Animals in Wonderland"

Building personal bonds
"I can't tell you how rewarding it is when you keep your animal occupied for a period of time," said Comb. "They like the challenge, they get personal interaction with you, and you build a bond of trust. That's what keeps me going."

Students also learn the principles of operant conditioning and must train six animals before they graduate. Training sessions are another way of mentally stimulating the animals while teaching important husbandry behaviors. For instance, desensitizing an animal to tactile stimulation will reduce stress and improve the animal's overall health.

One recent project for Comb was to train her spider monkey to respond cooperatively to necessary injections. Instead of conducting such a procedure by chasing an animal around a cage, capturing it, and restraining it -- a very stressful experience -- "You can train an animal to voluntarily present its arm. It's pretty exciting stuff," she said.

Comb noted that not only has she learned much about general husbandry and care, she also discovered where her interests lie. "I really enjoy working with primates. I was also surprised at how well I work with the big cats. I didn't think that would be something I'd be good at."

These experiences have helped her to focus in on her plans after graduating in May.

"The education I got at Colgate leads me to be a more inquisitive person," she said by way of explaining that, armed with her degrees from both institutions, she is leaning towards research, specifically hoping to participate in cognitive thinking/language studies with great apes.

"They really train you for any type of animal career you might want," she said of the EATM program, noting that graduates can do everything from instructing marine life for the U.S. Navy to coordinating the infamous AFLAC duck. In addition to placements at major zoos, circuses, and marine life and theme parks across the globe, some find work with animal hospitals, wildlife rescue organizations, or animal shelters. Although many opt for the entertainment industry (EATM grads have trained animals for everything from 101 Dalmatians to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone), Comb doesn't plan to take that particular path.

Comb has applied to a variety of zoos, the U.S. Navy, and great ape facilities but is keeping her options open. She is confident based on the exposure she's gotten to so many different animal species -- she has trained an African lion, withdrawn blood from an Asian elephant, and nursed a baby orangutan, for example.

Wherever she ends up, Comb knows that she wants to continue to enrich the lives of animals that are in captivity, to learn from these "ambassadors for their species," and use her knowledge to "contribute back to the livelihood of the species in the wild."

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