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Would it be better to switch from zoology to wildlife biology??

I do not know if i want to stay majoring in zoology or to switch to a more general major
#biology #wildlife-biology #zookeeper

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Dr. Jordan’s Answer

I'll respond in a wider context based on what I experienced as a career student in the "biological sciences" because this question has been posed to me many times. Now, at least, I can just share a link. With that said, I will offer a response to your question from a "higher elevation" perspective and perhaps with too much information (TMI) and great length..

Whether it comes to systematics and taxonomy or naming academic departments in life/biological sciences (and relevant college/department/division nomenclature, I believe academic biologists have demonstrated exceptional abilities at confusing students entering higher education programs. It is rather amazing that any student can navigate this landscape today and pick a good fit at the undergraduate level This is in-part due to advances in biotechnology and the contribution of molecular sciences to the field of wildlife ecology and conservation, which still attracts a contingent of young wildlife aficionados and naturalists-to-be.

When I graduated from high school in the early 90s, many liberal arts colleges and the larger ivy league institutions maintained botany or zoology departments as they still do at prestigious universities in the UK and elsewhere. Since I preferred life forms that moved, it was easy to pick zoology.

Quite frankly, I was also naive and attracted to the zoology department and zoology degree because I was unaware of the applied science programs at land-grant schools and other state institutions. I was in favor of smaller colleges and class sizes. I would have saved my parents quite a bit of money and been exempt from taking courses like organic chemistry and other challenging courses common among pre-health curricula.

I also made my decision largely based on what zoos were looking as they recruited entry-level animal (zoo) keepers. Zoological parks and public aquaria typically sought after graduates holding 4 year degrees in zoology or life science disciplines. Today, I would advise someone to choose differently than I did if they have any interest in working with captive wildlife.

If you want to work in a zoo directly with animals outside of veterinary health care, my suggestion would be to pursue a technical/vocational program, of which there are several. Santa Fe Community College and Moorpark are longstanding pioneers in educating zoo professionals for husbandry positions. They are tailor-fit curricula for exotic animal husbandry and more recently training and behavioral management of captive wildlife. Other programs have been developed with additional focus on welfare and behavior management at the undergraduate and graduate level.

An alternative path for a zoo animal keeper would be to choose veterinary technology (2 year program) or a bachelors degree in animal science. Marine parks often prefer students with psychology degrees because they often, but not always, require or offer coursework in operant conditioning. At the undergraduate level they may also offer coursework in experimental and comparative psychology.

Because many researchers in zoos are primatologists or have worked with more sentient species, I think college students who pursue anthropology degrees are well served for captive animal behavior research posts and related job pursuits.

Michigan State University may still offer a PhD in animal husbandry, assuming one is interested in breeding domestic suids (swine), poultry, or other domestic and alternative livestock. It certainly is a more lucrative career pursuit than choosing to work at a conservation breeding facility e.g., zoo, marine park or aquarium).

Some of these public/land grant universities offer degrees in "wildlife science" rather than wildlife biology, but for all intents and purposes they teach the same curricula (offering the same academic coursework). Some offer specific degrees in "wildlife ecology", so I really encourage prospective undergraduate students to read course offering and descriptions, rather than choose on the basis of the name of a given program.

My friend and distinguished colleague Dr. Michael Hutchins is both a zoo biologist and wildlife biologist. He is a strong advocate of teaching organismal biology, which is almost a lost science. It is unfortunate because for the benefit of managing wildlife, we need to continue to train people in management and conservation and policy programs, which to serve a student should really require prerequisite course work in mammalogy and ornithology, etc. This is the same foundation that should be built around the academic training of wildlife student. I'm often amazed when I learn that someone has taken one or more classes in conservation biology without prior courses in systematics and taxonomy.

I interviewed Dr. Hutchins for a series of editorials on wildlife issues for Nat Geo, including this one on wildlife scientists (

Although, Dr. Hutchins studied wild ungulates in the Pacific Northwest for his dissertation (PhD) research, he eventually became the executive director of the Wildlife Society. The Society has the largest membership base of wildlife professionals (managers and scientists) in the US and perhaps the world.

The Wildlife Society caters to wildlife and fisheries biologist working in academia and largely for local, state and federal fish and wildlife agencies in the US. It also may serves the interests of provincial and national government agencies wildlife biologists in other countries. Before taking helm of the Society, he served as the first director of conservation and science for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Accredited and other reputable zoos and aquariums employ graduates from biological disciplines, including those who matriculated into zoology and wildlife programs at accredited colleges and universities . The AZA is now under the leadership of Dr. Dan Ashe. Dr. Ashe is the former Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (US Department of the Interior).

While biology falls under the domain of "liberal arts" colleges at many of our nation's Research 1 Universities, wildlife science and animal science may fall under the auspices of colleges of natural resources, food sciences, environmental sciences or "life sciences" just to make sure it continues to be confusing to ambitious young scholars entering college.

Allied health departments and colleges at "medium-size"and larger universities, including those representing veterinary, dentistry and nursing disciplines have also diversified their offerings. However, these programs still target the largest percentage of students in the biological sciences. Hence administrators, may feel that continued branding with the term "zoology" is detrimental to marketing their programs.

Money talks and there is far more funding for health studies. With that said "zoology" as a moniker is fading away for academic departments. When I started, the programs of appeal at universities were often known as ecology, evolution and behavior programs or some iteration of that, but really only their names had changed. These programs may persist as are the replacement generation for zoology departments and programs that rival what you might find at Cambridge and Oxford and the like.

As another side note, this evolution (no pun intended) may have been to the detriment of zoologists and natural historians and even the medical community itself. Remember that guy Charles Darwin who was a bit of a pioneer in evolutionary biology? He also also considered himself a medical zoologist.

He initially went to school to be a physician like his father. Unfortunately, neither veterinary nor medical school typically require prerequisite courses in evolution. When I applied to vet school I was not required to have completed a course in genetics, but I did for graduate school in a zoology program. I can't speak to opportunities for wildlife science majors in respective departments with regard to prerequisites in genetics or evolution, but they can't hurt..

When I attended vet school most students had backgrounds in animal science or biology. Few had a background in the applied natural resource disciplines like fisheries and wildlife sciences and even fewer had come out of zoology programs, which include the study of organisms from often very theoretical perspectives. In fact, few had even heard of "organismal biology" (e.g., mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology, etc.)

Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) was one of the last academic institutions to offer graduate degrees (e.g., MA, MS, PhD) in "Zoology" in North America. I initially matriculated into that program, which had a strong focus on teaching didactics. In other words, students in the program may have pursued terminal research degrees (PhDs) but intended to join faculty at undergraduate institutions, seeking tenure-track and non-tenure track teaching appointments with less focus on research.

Prestigious zoology departments can still be found throughout Europe and elsewhere, but in the United States and Canada, most zoology departments have been absorbed by larger biology departments or have been renamed and replaced by the aforementioned divisions like ecology, physiology and cell and molecular divisions.

In California, Humboldt State continues to list a zoology degree offerings (BS & perhaps a BA), but there is really no difference between an undergraduate degree in "zoology" or "biology". Unfortunately, department chairs and deans and other academic administrators from provosts at Research 1 universities to Presidents of liberal arts colleges, many of whom are biologists with faculty appointments in biology departments are still eager to push pre-health tracts over organismal biology programs. It makes sense but does not encourage people to become naturalists and natural historians, which there seem to be a need for both in terms of science and nature education an communication and research. I would look at the courses offered when choosing an undergraduate program and job descriptions for jobs of interest.

I believe the MU "Zoology Department" hosted by a Research 2 institution has been absorbed by a larger entity, the Department of Biology (a common trend in academia). When I was in a biology-pyschology program at a liberal arts college in Upstate New York, I got caught up with departmental labels when I could have realized the opportunities to study both behavioral ecology and ethology. These are both disciplines that fall under animal behavior, but the former focuses on animals in the wild and the latter is closely related to experimental and comparative psychology