10 Hands-On Zoo & Exotic Animal Science Programs

The incredible world of exotic animal care has been keeping top-tier colleges busy with program enrollments. Many veterinary potentials are intrigued by the biology and future of animals like zebras, ocelots, and lemurs. And, while many colleges provide excellent veterinary courses that define and familiarize students with these creatures, only a handful of schools provide on-site zoo animal experience to complement lectures and other laboratory-based instruction. 

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent teaching zoos that give students interested in exotic animals hands-on experience with the creatures to which they are so dedicated. Each of these programs is known for the amount of actual work that students get to do with zoo animals, with each school having direct affiliation with a nationally recognized zoo. In addition, many of the programs mentioned here have animal care education programs recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

1. Moorpark College – America’s Teaching Zoo

Each year, Moorpark College receives over 150 applications for the 52 spaces in its hands-on teaching zoo program. This is one of the most immersive exotic animal training facilities, with students and faculty managing and maintaining the zoo’s 200 exotic animals. The coursework is also rigorous – each student is required to pass every course with at least a “B,” otherwise they are immediately excused from the program. Because it is such a highly regarded school, the application window is small, from Dec. 1 – Jan. 31st of the school year prior to acceptance. The school also requires a number of courses to be completed before application, such as basic math, first aid, and public speaking. Total cost per year is $13,000 for California residents and $20,000 for out-of-state applicants.

2. Florida International Teaching Zoo

The Florida International Teaching Zoo has been working for 20 years to train the best zoologists and zoo professionals in the business. This zoo, accredited by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), provides a one-year, hands-on Zoo Animal Management Program. Students are completely immersed in zoo management during the course, which is one of the fastest in the industry, providing care for the animals and grounds maintenance during the day and taking didactic courses during the evening. The cost for this exotic animal degree is approximately $25,000 per year.

3. Otterbein University – Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Recently, USA Today ranked the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as the 5th best in nation. It’s no wonder that the students who work in the Otterbein program often go on to become influential members of the zoological world. Otterbein is one of only five universities in the world that offers both a B.S. and a B.A. in Zoological and Conservation Science. The program is incredibly rigorous and competitive. Only 24 students are accepted into the program each year. Students begin working with zoo animals during sophomore year and increase up to a full 8-month internship at the Columbus Zoo during senior year. Full-time attendance in this program costs approximately $41,000 per year. 

4. Delaware Valley University – Elmwood Park Zoo

Delaware Valley University has been consistently ranked as one of the best colleges in the Northeast Region, and this program is one of only three four-year zoo science programs in the nation. Students of the program benefit from working directly with the Elmwood Park Zoo, an AZA-accredited facility. They gain both didactic and hands-on learning experiences through working with either zoo or marine animals in a variety of zoo science areas. These include exotic animal husbandry, handling, care, nutrition, disease, and psychology. Average tuition (including housing) is around $51,000 per year. 

5. Portland Community College – Oregon Zoo

The PCC Biology and Animal Zoo Management (BAMZA) program is a two-year course of study that is directly affiliated with the Oregon Zoo. The competitive admissions process is rigorous, and the school only accepts 24 out of almost 500 applications each year. One of the attractions of the program, besides the emphasis on hands-on zoo learning experiences, is the low cost. For residents of OR, WA, CA, ID and NV, it is less than $100 per credit. Students in this course are also eligible to transfer their degree to a four-year university like Oregon State University, which is internationally regarded for its biology programs.

6. Friends University – Sedgwick County Zoo

Although the Friends University program is small, it is one of the finest in the nation when it comes to hands-on accredited training. This mid-sized zoo is noted for its wide variety of wildlife and the close relationship that is has maintained with the university over the past 20 years. Students in this program are required to take a number of on-site courses including Zookeeping Techniques, Captive Animal Training and Enrichment, and Introduction to Captive Animal Health. The 43-credit hour program results in a B.S. in Zoo Science, at the cost of $855 per credit hour.

7. Malone University – Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

This private Christian college has a phenomenal Zoo and Wildlife Biology B.S. program. The small group of around 25 students spend most of their class time on location at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where they feed and clean exotic animals like boa constrictors, waxbill finches, and sugar gliders. Students who are interested in this program need to be aware that the program is heavily geared towards Christian students, so there is an emphasis on the role of humans as protectors of God’s creatures. According to the college, the annual tuition (including room and board) is approximately $36,000.

8. Niagara County Community College – Buffalo Zoo

The Associate’s of Animal Management at NCCC is especially effective due to its connection with local animal programs. In this program, students spend a full day of each school week working with live animals at the Buffalo Zoo, Aquarium of Niagara, SPCA, veterinary hospitals and other animal facilities. Students not only clean and care for zoo animals when they’re working at the Buffalo Zoo, but they are trained to give presentations, tours, and construct new exhibits. The two-year program consists of 68 credit hours, which can be transferred to a four-year college like State University of New York – Oswego. Tuition is per semester, and costs $1,740 for in-state residents and $3,480 for out-of-state residents.

9. Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo

The teaching zoo at Santa Fe is one of only three in the nation, and has a very competitive program. The zoo school, which is open to the public and run primarily by students, is located on 10 acres of land adjacent to the rest of the college. Students spend their time monitoring, maintaining, and caring for the animals at the school, in addition to taking didactic courses during the workday and evening. The application period is short – between March 1 – May 31st – and many students are turned away each year. One of the reasons for this is the in-state cost, which is only $10,000 for the entire program. For out-of-state residents, the price is $28,000 for the 66-credit course of study.

10. University of California, Davis – San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is one of the most well-known animal facilities in the world, and the students who have access to working there get a premium educational experience. This three-year residency is open to three students who have recently graduated from college or school of veterinary medicine accredited by the AVMA. The chosen students then train for a year each at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Global and Safari Park, and Sea World San Diego. Students of this program work with zoo animals to perform ultrasound, blood and tissue sampling, and general diagnostics. Although the program does not cost money, it is a volunteer program.

Barry Franklin (Editor)

Barry is the Managing Editor of VetTechColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Previously, Barry served as a VP at a Silicon Valley software company. In addition to running editorial operations at Sechel, Barry also serves on the Board of Trustees at a local K-8 school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. He presently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family and their black maltipoo.