By Jessie Burchette
When Davidson County Community College hired a president who wanted to add new programs, Mark Stevens seized the opportunity.
In two years, he’s put together one of the hottest community college courses in the country.
The college has already received 80 applications for 20 slots available in the next term. And the applicants are coming from all over ó Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee and several other states.
The zoo keeper program ó officially the zoo and aquarium science program ó is one of only six in the country. The other programs on the East Coast are in Buffalo, N.Y. and Gainesville, Fla.
A biology professor, Stevens attended a community college in Florida that had a zoo program. That played a major role in his career choices and his interest in animal behavior.
While doing research at the N.C. Zoo in Ashboro, he discovered that those who care for the animals are from all across the country, almost everywhere except North Carolina.
“Out of 64 keepers, only one is originally from this state,” Stevens said. “There was no formal training inside the state.”
When he got the chance to put together the program, Stevens went to the N.C. Zoo and asked officials there if they were interested in a partnership.
He talked to the zoo advisory council and others at facilities including Rowan Wildlife Adventures and the Lazy 5 Ranch in western Rowan. His basic question: “If you’re going to hire our graduates, what do you want?”
Stevens said one roadblock to offering such a course is working out a good relationship with facilities that have animals.
“Very few animal facilities will partner with education facilities,” he said.
It took about 18 months to build the program and establish the relationships. The program launched last fall with 20 students.
While taking a full academic course load, the students split time between the classroom and on-the-job training, putting in 20 hours a week at the N.C. Science Center in Greensboro and Dan Nicholas Park’s Rowan Wildlife Adventures and Nature and Learning Center.
Stevens has high praise for Rowan Wildlife Adventures.
“It’s pretty amazing that a county would develop such an exhibit,” he said. “How many counties in the nation would put resources in such a facility? It’s incredible … and the staff is great.”
While some may think zoo keepers simply act as janitors who scoop up after the animals, Stevens said they do far more. They learn about the psychology of animals, including how to stimulate them in captivity, enrich their environment and reduce their stress.
“This program is just as competitive and almost as grueling as a nursing program,” Stevens said. He pointed out that, good weather or bad, the animals have to be fed.
While students work to get into the program, Stevens is working to make it bigger and better. He’s working with the N.C. Aquarium to develop an aquarium track. Overall, he expects the program to soar.
“We think within a couple of years,” he said, “we will be the premier program in the nation.”
For more information on the program, check the Davidson Community College Web site at www.davidsonccc.edu.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jessie Burchette