Wheeling Jesuit University

Psychology Students Engage in Community Outreach at Oglebay's Good Zoo

Psychology students at Wheeling Jesuit University have the opportunity to learn about animal behavior and research methodology while engaging in a unique form of community outreach.

Through an experimental learning course, Debra Hull, Ph.D., professor of psychology, and her students work with the animals and staff at Oglebay’s Good Zoo, conducting animal observational research and formulating suggestions for changes that might support zookeepers’ efforts to increase the health and well-being of the zoo animals.

Although the semester-long project began several years ago with students using the zoo to learn about animal psychology, it has evolved into a service-learning project that also benefits the animals and zookeepers. “We are so grateful to the Good Zoo for providing this opportunity for students that we wanted to do something in return that would be valuable to them,” Hull says.

Zookeepers at the Good Zoo strive to facilitate natural behaviors by discouraging the pacing, staring and other stereotyped actions often seen in zoos. By taking time to observe and record behaviors, combined with background research on the species, the Wheeling Jesuit students are able to collect detailed information about habitats, mannerisms and behavioral patterns. Zoo staff can then use this information to improve training methods and alter environments to reflect indigenous habitats and promote natural behaviors.

During the recent fall semester, eight groups studied behaviors such as pacing, grooming, parenting, chewing and interacting in bears, meerkats, red pandas, red wolves, tamarin monkeys, naked mole rats, lemurs and ostriches, learning everything they could through academic research and firsthand observation.

Through background research, Janna Ryder’s group learned that sunbathing is a common activity of the ring-tailed lemurs in their native Madagascar’s tropical climate. However, the group members observed that the climate in the Wheeling area makes it difficult for the animals to be active.

“The lemurs are unable to act like they would in their natural environment due to the stark difference in temperature. As a result, my group decided suggest that the lemurs have an enclosure inside so that they can have a regulated climate, and the visitors of the zoo would also benefit from seeing them active,” says the junior from Wheeling.

“This was a very rewarding project because I learned so much about lemurs, and hopefully our suggestions will be taken into serious consideration. This could improve the lives of the lemurs in captivity and allow them to live a much fuller and active life during the cold and dreary fall and winter months,” Ryder adds.

Julia Rasz and her group members studied red pandas, an endangered species, at the Good Zoo. They observed the differences between an 11-year-old female and a three-year-old female.

“Some ideas we had that might be useful to the zoo were to grow bamboo in pots and transfer the pots to the red panda enclosure so the pandas can ‘forage’ as they would in the wild. Bamboo is the staple of their diet and it grows amazingly fast, so we thought this might work well,” Rasz says.

The group observed that the older red panda spent most of her time in the enclosure’s den, as opposed to in the trees. “We thought the zoo employees might be able to build a little easy-to-access platform or place some low tree branches so she can get some ‘arboreal’ time in. We also thought a one-way window into the den to the side of the enclosure would allow zoo attendees to see her without disturbing her.

“This project was a wonderful and memorable experience. I don't plan on a career in animal research, but I really love red pandas and would like to do what I can to help preserve the species,” says Rasz

Hull says the project initially began five years ago to help Wheeling Jesuit’s psychology students gain hands-on experience. “Today, it’s more about our students trying to help the zoo. The zookeepers can take our suggestions and decide, on the basis of their greater experience and knowledge, if the suggestions would benefit the animals and the zoo.”

However, students also benefit by learning about reliability and statistics through gathering their own data, and become more interested in learning because the project encourages active, hands-on learning.

"This assignment gave us the opportunity to do a new, different kind of research. On most of our experiments we use people, most often students from Wheeling Jesuit, so working with animals was something different and fun," says Erin Parrill, a junior from Ridgeley, W.Va.

The assignment also has led to internship and career opportunities for a handful of students. “Two students have interned at the Good Zoo and one went on to become a zookeeper. Currently, a former student is working at the zoo and another is an intern,” says Hull. Interns at the zoo are able to work with the animals, doing specialized, long-term observations, handling and data gathering.

Wheeling Jesuit University integrates the Jesuit traditions of intellectual excellence with the best of advanced technology to help students develop lives of success, service and significance. The University's mission is to educate students for life, for leadership, and for service with and among others. U.S.News & World Report ranks Wheeling Jesuit University 15th in the "Best Master’s Universities in the South," making it the highest ranked institution in West Virginia in that category for eight consecutive years, and the highest ranked school in the Ohio Valley. Wheeling Jesuit University is profiled in The Templeton Guide: Colleges that Encourage Character Development, which profiles exemplary college programs that inspire students to lead ethical and civic-minded lives. Wheeling Jesuit--the only Catholic institution of higher education in West Virginia--offers more than 30 undergraduate programs of study and six graduate degrees to about 1,500 students. It has a student-to-faculty ratio of 14 to1, and 18 intercollegiate NCAA Division II athletic teams. The 65-acre campus located in Wheeling, W.Va., includes 15 modern buildings, the multi-million dollar Acker Science Center, residence halls and a modern recreation and athletic facility that includes a soccer/track and field complex. The campus is home to the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center, the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies, the NASA-sponsored Classroom of the Future, a Challenger Learning Center and the Clifford M. Lewis Appalachian Institute.

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