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Celebrating 40 Years of Graduates from the Zoo Academy

If you follow the Zoo blog, you’ve likely read posts written by some of current Zoo Academy students and are somewhat familiar with the program. This year, we are celebrating a milestone as the 40th class of Zoo Academy graduates prepares to walk across the Cintas Center stage and receive their diplomas on May 24.

The Cincinnati Zoo Academy has been a part of the public school system in Cincinnati since 1975. In 1995, the program underwent a substantial change from a strictly vocational program with an emphasis on natural resources and wildlife management to a four year college preparatory program where the students earn vocational degrees by working with zookeepers for two hours a day. During the 2008 – 2009 school year, we became a Tech Prep program with articulation agreements with UC Blue Ash and Cincinnati State. Students spend their ninth and tenth grade years at Hughes High School. During their eleventh and twelfth grade years, home base for the Zoo Academy is located on the first floor of the Education Center on Zoo grounds. The students spend several hours a day working alongside keepers, educators and other staff in labs throughout the Zoo.

Soon to graduate, Zoo Academy student Dominick Stowers (right) works with the Africa keepers and an ostrich.

Soon to graduate, Zoo Academy student Dominick Stowers (right) works with the Africa keepers and an ostrich.

Soon to graduate, Monneka Johnson socializes Bonnie, a screaming hairy armadillo, during her Education lab. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon to graduate, Monneka Johnson socializes Bonnie, a screaming hairy armadillo, during her Education lab. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

This year’s graduates follow in the footsteps of an esteemed group of alumni. Many graduates have gone on to establish careers in environmental or zoological fields and some have actually been hired on as staff here at the Zoo, including Rickey Kinley, who has worked at the Zoo for 22 years and is currently a keeper in the aviculture department. Here Rickey shares his story in his own words:

“I started my life as an underprivileged kid. We were very poor.  I can remember being fascinated by nature and animals as far back as when I was three years old watching a ladybug on my window sill. At about the third grade, I had the epiphany that books held the information about the animals that I was so interested in. I became a bookworm, but only with books about animals. This curiosity developed further on to my teenage years when a freshman year science teacher mentioned to me about a high school called the Zoo School. As a teenager, this school seemed too good to be true. I applied, was accepted, and started school at the beginning of my junior year.

It was quite amazing to see on a daily basis all of the Cincinnati Zoo All-stars:  Cathryn Hilker (founder of Cat Ambassador Program), Mike Dulaney (current Curator of Mammals), Milan Busching (former insect keeper), and of course, Thane Maynard (current Zoo Director). These were people that I had regularly seen and idolized on the TV show “Zoo Zoo Zoo.”  Every single day I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure that it was a real high school.

Like every teenager, I was never quite sure what, when, or where life would take me or what decisions I should be making. The Zoo School gave me focus, direction, and mentoring. My very first lab rotation was in Wildlife Canyon with folks like Randy Pairan (current keeper) who taught me about the babirusa named Oscar that was more like a dog than a pig. During the Cat House lab, I was allowed to ride in the vet van next to an anesthetized lion on the way to the vet hospital for a root canal.

Rickey Kinley as a Zoo Academy student assisting with a procedure on a lion.

Rickey Kinley as a Zoo Academy student assisting with a procedure on a lion.

In the Bird House, Casey Nastold (former keeper) taught me how to hand-feed a variety of parrots, including baby macaws, eclectus parrots, African grey parrots, cockatoos, and the list goes on. Way back in 1992, the Bird House used to remove the eggshells from each egg before we smashed them for diets. I mentioned to Casey one day how in one of my books I read that many bird breeders smash the eggs with the shell on to provide grit and calcium for the birds. Casey decided that it made sense, the change was made and that is how we do our eggs still to this day. Looking back it still amazes me that she, in her managerial position, listened to the idea of a teenager.  It was extraordinary that she judged the concept on the merit of the idea and not from whose mouth it came.

Today, Rickey works in aviculture with birds, including the rhinoceros hornbill.

Today, Rickey works in aviculture with birds, including the rhinoceros hornbill.

I met Mary Abbott (current keeper) during my rotation in the Children’s Zoo.  In this department lived a turkey vulture named Greta that only liked Mary. Actually, she only liked women.  Any woman could pick this bird up like a baby, but men were never treated so kindly. Even though Greta was partial to women in general, I could tell that this vulture was a great judge of character because Mary was one of the nicest people I met as a student.

I want to help others understand how great of an impact that a program like this can have on a person.  Two things seemed impossible to me as a youngster with few opportunities:  1) to one day become a zookeeper and 2) to own my own business.  I have now been at the Zoo for 22 years and I have been a business owner for 13 years.”

Rickey shares his knowledge as a bird keeper with participants in the Zoo's Spring Break Camp.

Rickey shares his knowledge as a bird keeper with participants in the Zoo’s Spring Break Camp.

Learn more about the Zoo Academy and hear inspiring stories from other graduates here.


May 22, 2015   1 Comment

The Importance of CREW’s Domestic Cat Research

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy student, Jane Collins

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is famously known to the world for its hard work on saving endangered plants and animals. Whenever people learn about CREW, they hear about the projects on polar bears, Sumatran rhinos, wild cats, and many plant species including autumn buttercup, four-petal pawpaw, and Avon Park harebells. You learn a lot about how important these projects are, but I believe there is one important aspect of CREW that is not as well known to Zoo visitors as it should be. I’ll give you a hint, re-read the title!

That’s right. I’m talking about cats. I don’t mean the wild African lion, cheetah, or tiger that you may have been thinking about. I mean domestic cats. CREW’s Domestic Cat Research is actually important to saving endangered big cats in the wild. These special cats help CREW with a number of things, including testing a contraceptive vaccine and conducting oviductal artificial inseminations and embryo transfers.

Three of the CREW cats - Taneshia, Beth and Paige

Three of the CREW cats – Taneshia, Beth and Paige

The cats in this program are given vaccines for common diseases and are spayed and neutered when at the appropriate age so they are completely cared for. CREW volunteers take the time to socialize with the cats also so they are very affectionate cats and are never neglected.

As a Zoo Academy student, I personally have had the opportunity to spend time with the cats and see up close how well they are treated.  Washing cat dishes, litter pans, animal carriers, and a few other responsibilities may have not been the finest experience, but I liked that I was making even the smallest contribution to the care of the cats. I also was able to spend quality time with most of the cats playing and relaxing, whichever the cats preferred for the day.  I had a great time learning a few of the cats’ individual personalities. One cat physically demands love and affection by climbing right into your lap. Another is very vocal. And another cat even loves water.

My favorite cat was a three-year old grey tabby with black stripes. He was the largest male domestic cat I have ever seen and looked like he belonged deep in a dark jungle rather than at a zoo. At end of my time at CREW, he was up for adoption. I couldn’t bring myself to part with him and decided to take him home. His new name is officially Chaz. He likes to follow me around EVERY square inch of my house and cries when I’ve gone too long without petting him. He is a loving member of my family. It is very cool to have a cat from the Cincinnati Zoo that has contributed to research that helps to save endangered wild cats.

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

April 8, 2015   1 Comment

Great Gardens at the Zoo

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy Student, Elaina Allen

Here at the Cincinnati Zoo we have a lot of fascinating animals to look at from leaf-cutting ants to Asian elephants. However there is more to the Cincinnati Zoo; the Zoo is also known for its amazing plant displays. One plant display in particular that I will be discussing is the amazing Dinosaur Garden located outside of the front entrance of Reptile House on the right side near Monkey Island.

The Dinosaur Garden was designed in the 1970s through 1980s around the time the Zoo also became a botanical garden. A botanical garden is an establishment where plants are grown for display to the public and often for educational study. The purpose of the Dinosaur Garden in particular is to convey knowledge to the visitor about the prehistoric plants that lived around the same time as the dinosaurs.

Dinosaur Garden (Photo: Elaina Allen)

Dinosaur Garden (Photo: Elaina Allen)

One thing interesting you can find inside the garden is the Araucarioxylon arizonicum or the petrified log. When a plant is fossilized it is considered petrified. The Araucarioxylon arizonicum is an extinct species of conifer that is known for its massive tree trunks.

Petrified log, Araucarioxylon arizonicum  (Photo: Elaina Allen)

Petrified log, Araucarioxylon arizonicum (Photo: Elaina Allen)

My favorite species to look at while in the area is the China Fir because this tree has pointy needles, which is an adaptation to defend itself against large animals such as dinosaurs.

China fir (Photo: Lazaregagnidze)

China fir (Photo: Lazaregagnidze)

Observing the Dinosaur Garden you will notice that some of the plants come and go, depending on the season. The Horticulture staff makes sure to maintain and keep up with the changes in the weather, and also the requirements or needs of the plants in the garden. Horticulture is the art of garden cultivation and management. The staff in the Horticulture department maintains any appropriate plant species throughout the Zoo.

So next time you decide to visit the Zoo, check out the Dinosaur Garden and the many other plant displays. You won’t regret it!

January 23, 2015   21 Comments