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, lemurs, and aquatic wildlife. And, while many colleges provide excellent veterinary courses that 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 and aquariums that give students interested in exotic animals hands-on experience with the creatures to which they are so dedicated. Depending on the degree or certificate being sought, these programs typically require one to four years of didactic classroom study combined with hands-on experience in an accredited zoo or aquarium.

Why is choosing a program affiliated with an accredited zoo or aquarium important? Students and their future employers need to know that they learned in a facility that places its priority on animal welfare rather than entertainment and profit. Many educational programs partner with zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This organization is responsible for vetting zoos and aquariums, ensuring facilities are committed to providing the highest standards of human and animal management, welfare, safety, conservation, and education.

Read on to learn about 10 hands-on zoology, aquarium, and exotic animal science educational programs.

1. Moorpark College – America’s Teaching Zoo

Each year, Moorpark College receives over 150 applications for the 50-60 spaces in its hands-on exotic animal training management (EATM) program in partnership with America’s Teaching Zoo in Moorpark, California. 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 “C,” otherwise they are immediately excused from the program. This is an in-person program that requires its students to be flexible with their schedules to prioritize last-minute guest lectures and occasional overnight stays at the teaching zoo to monitor a pregnant or sick animal.

Applicants to this program agree to be available for zoo cleaning seven days a week including holidays. While ethical animal treatment is emphasized, students in this program must be prepared to humanely kill rodents, rabbits, and pigeons for zoo animals to consume.

Because it is such a highly regarded school, the application window is small, from December 1 to January 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. The total cost per year is $15,000 for California residents and $20,000 for out-of-state applicants.

2. West Liberty University – Oglebay’s Good Zoo

Marketed as ZooSci@WLU, West Liberty University in West Virginia offers a four-year zoo management degree. With partnerships at two AZA-accredited facilities: Oglebay’s Good Zoo which is four miles from campus and The Wilds conservation center 80 miles away in Cumberland, Ohio, students learn from professors as well as zoo and conservation professionals.

Instruction and hands-on experience in this program prepare graduates for work in zoo and conservation facilities, wildlife rehabilitation and restoration, federal and state conservation agencies, and graduate-level coursework in ecological and conservation science. Remarkably, WLU offers the only master’s degree program in the United States in zoo science and coursework that can be completed online.

To be eligible for the four-year program, students must maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.5 in math and science courses. Students who meet minimum ACT/SAT scores may qualify for accelerated placement and finish their degrees in less than four years. Some hands-on courses require a zoo science fee of $1,778. Tuition for this program is $333 per credit out for in-state residents, $562 for metro area residents, and $664 for out-of-state tuition.

3. Otterbein University – Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

In 2019, USA Today ranked the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in the top 10 best zoos in the nation. It’s no wonder that the students who work in the Otterbein University 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 BS and a BA in zoological and conservation science. Students learn from partnerships through the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as well as the Ohio Wildlife Center and the Reef Systems Coral Farm. Students can specialize through a zoo or aquarium track.

The program is incredibly rigorous and competitive. Only 24 students are accepted into the program each year with 12 students accepted into each of the two tracks. Prerequisite courses for admission include biology, chemistry, math, and zoo science and students must pass with a grade of C or higher as well as have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Students begin working with zoo animals during their sophomore year and increase up to a full eight-month internship at the Columbus Zoo during senior year. Full-time attendance in this program costs approximately $32,024 per year.

4. Delaware Valley University – Elmwood Park Zoo

Delaware Valley University is one of only three four-year zoo science programs in the nation. This program offers students hands-on learning opportunities through five partnerships with zoos, aquariums, and natural wildlife facilities as well as a 1,000-acre living classroom.

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.

Graduates from this program are prepared for work as zoo or aquarium professionals, wildlife rehabilitation, or veterinary or graduate school in zoology. Three zoology-themed student organizations provide specialized extracurricular experiences connecting students to national-level professional organizations.

Applications are accepted on a year-round basis and students can apply as early as August entering their senior year of high school. Transcripts, an admission essay, and letters of recommendation are required for undergraduate applicants. They also provide a test-optional admissions route. The average net cost for tuition, room, and board in 2019-20 was $26,400.

5. Oregon Coast Community College – Oregon Coast Aquarium

Fans of the film Free Willy will remember how the real-life orca actor Keiko was saved from inhumane conditions and brought to the Oregon Coast Aquarium to be rehabilitated in the mid-1990s. Nowadays, the Oregon Coast Community College (OCCC) in Newport, Oregon offers a two-year associate of applied science in aquarium science degree in partnership with the Oregon Coast Aquarium and other wildlife conservation facilities. This two-year degree program features theoretical and practical experiences to prepare students for careers in aquatic animal husbandry.

Graduates from this program have a 94 percent job placement rate in this competitive program. As well, OCCC has an articulation agreement with the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) giving graduates from the two-year program the opportunity to pursue a bachelor of applied science in technology and management. As well, OCCC offers an aquarium science certificate for bachelor’s degree holders wanting to pursue aquarium science careers.

Admissions for this program happen once a year and all applicants begin by applying to OCCC. There is a $50 application fee and the process takes 10 minutes. The aquarium science program will contact applicants with more information about program-specific admissions requirements and dates. Tuition for OCCC is $121 per credit for in-state residents and $230 per credit for out-of-state residents.

6. Friends University – Sedgwick County Zoo

Although the Friends University zoo science program in Wichita, Kansas is small, it is one of the finest in the nation when it comes to hands-on accredited training. This program has maintained a 20-year partnership with the award-winning Sedgwick County Zoo which is noted for its wide variety of wildlife. 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 124-credit program results in a BS in zoo science.

To apply, all students must apply for admission to Friends University to meet minimum requirements. Students with high school GPAs of 2.75 or higher will be automatically admitted without ACT or SAT scores. Additional course prerequisites may be required for admission into the zoo science program; contact program administrators for more information. Tuition costs are $29,670 per year.

7. Malone University – Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Malone University, a private Christian college, has a phenomenal zoo and wildlife biology BS program. Each year, a small group of around 25 students spends 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. Internships are an essential part of this program and students are placed at locations throughout the United States to gain hands-on experience with invertebrates, freshwater and saltwater fish, native and exotic amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

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 $42,320.

8. Niagara County Community College – Buffalo Zoo

The associate of animal management at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, New York 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 the BS in zoology program at State University of New York – Oswego.

Acceptance into the animal management program requires submitting a physical examination report. Students must prove they meet technical standards for physical fitness as well as meet minimum requirements in reading, writing, and mathematics to be accepted into this program. Tuition is $396 per credit for out-of-state residents or residents outside of the sponsorship area and $198 per credit for in-state residents or for those who can present a certificate of residence.

9. Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo

The 10-acre teaching zoo at Santa Fe College is one of only three AZA-accredited zoos located on a college campus and offers a 66-credit associate in science program in zoo animal technology.

Located in Gainesville, Florida, the Santa Fe College Teaching zoo is open to the public and run primarily by students and is located on 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.

With three application periods offered throughout the year, students admitted to Santa Fe college can begin their studies fall, spring, or summer semester. The two-year program requires five semesters to complete. Reciprocal agreements are available through three other institutions for students who want to pivot their AS degree into a bachelor’s degree program. In-state tuition costs $106 per credit for Florida residents and $382 per credit for out-of-state residents.

10. University of California, Davis – San Diego Zoo (DVM Students)

The San Diego Zoo is one of the most well-known animal facilities in the world, and the UC Davis 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 under world-renowned faculty at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Global and Safari Park, and SeaWorld.

Residents accepted to this program work with zoo animals to perform ultrasounds, blood and tissue sampling, and general diagnostics. Students who complete this rigorous program are eligible for the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM) specialty board certification which can prepare them for clinical careers in non-domesticated zoological species and wildlife under human care positions in zoos, conservation programs, or wildlife rehabilitation settings.

Although the program does not cost money, it is a volunteer-based program that requires rigorous minimum qualifications. Applicants must prove they’ve graduated from an approved or accredited school of veterinary medicine, have one year of high-quality clinical practice, be able to obtain or have an active California veterinary license and undergo a criminal background check.

Methodology: Top Exotic & Zoological Vet Tech Programs

The two- or four-year educational programs featured on the list above include a generous amount of hands-on instruction experience in zoos and aquariums in partnerships throughout the United States.

Each school on this list is regionally or nationally accredited by an organization approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, each institution has a direct affiliation with one or more accredited zoos or aquariums. Nine of the programs above are affiliated with facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and one program is recognized by the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM).

Rachel Drummond (Writer)

Rachel is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).