Class Menagerie

By David J. Hoff — January 29, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 11 min read

Corrected: This story incorrectly reported the toxicity of a tarantula’s venom. The spider’s poison has little effect on humans and other warm-blooded animals. The story also implied that Nick Imholte, a student at the academy, did not understand that the spider’s bite is not fatal.

Students leave the confines of high school to enter a realm where animals and academics go hand in hand.

Inside a large, gray trash can, crickets chirp away as Glenn Schulte quiets a crowd of high school juniors nearby.

“Today, we’re talking about floating poop,” the tall, thin teacher tells his zoology class.

The prospect doesn’t automatically gross out this class of city kids. They’ve already spent two hours this morning scooping up animal excrement, washing away the stain it leaves on floors and windows, and hauling it away. Fecal matter is a fact of life here at the Zoo Academy—a partnership run by the Cincinnati school system and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. About 35 juniors and seniors learn the ins and outs of caring for animals and plants while completing high school in a two-room schoolhouse on the zoo grounds.

It’s not all a bed of roses. It’s more like fertilizer for them.

“Everything we do here is dirty work,” says Nick Imholte, 16. “Cleaning up their poop, you know.”

Life at the Zoo Academy is part on-the-job learning and part college preparation. The students spend two hours of the day in what they call a “lab,” helping zookeepers clean out cages and perform routine maintenance. All the students wear the same uniform: a forest-green sweatshirt or golf shirt with their name stitched on the chest and brown cotton pants commonly worn by janitors.

The rest of the day is devoted to coursework in English, math, social studies, and a heavy dose of science. On top of biology and physics, the students study anatomy, botany, and zoology.

Their hands-on work in the zoo also gives them a far better opportunity to see how their learning matters than an ordinary school-based science lab would. For most of the students, the Zoo Academy allows them to explore their interest in working with animals.

FEEDING TIME: Tara Hill, 17, chops bananas, while Cyrni Reed, 16, right, grates hard-boiled eggs, shells and all, for birds in the Wings of the World section of the Cincinnati Zoo.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Unlike many special courses of study that public schools offer, students don’t have to meet high academic standards or pass a test to enter. All they have to do is sign up. For most, their work in the high school is the first step toward becoming a zookeeper or veterinarian, or toward preparing for another job working directly with animals.

Imholte, a soft-spoken junior who says he wants a career as a zookeeper, spent his morning caring for the animals who live in the classroom. He asked for the classroom job because he wants the experience of working with insects before moving into Insect World. In his first two lab assignments, he cleaned monkey and gorilla cages and weeded and watered plants in the zoo’s botanical garden.

This morning, he slices fruits and vegetables to feed the Madagascar hissing cockroaches. He removes crickets from the trash can and drops them into the tank of a loggerhead musk turtle. The crickets jump around the tank—hopping in and out of the water—before the turtle breakfasts on them.

Imholte’s most difficult task is changing the water for the biggest of several tarantulas housed in separate cages around the room. The deadly spider is camped on top of his water dish. Imholte isn’t brave enough—or maybe he isn’t foolish enough—to nudge the arachnid away.

Even though the tarantula’s venom isn’t deadly to everyone, Imholte says, “it’s probably best not to find out” if it would kill him.

Once the tarantula moves from his perch, Imholte quickly lifts the top of the cage, reaches in with forceps, and grabs the dish. After changing the water, he reverses the order, avoiding a trip across the street to the University of Cincinnati Hospital Center, where emergency-room doctors store antidotes to fight the poisons emitted by the zoo’s animals.

While Imholte spends the first two hours of the morning avoiding one hands-on lesson, the zoology lecture Schulte is about to deliver will give him the chance to engage in another.

“Every animal has parasites,” Schulte begins. “Last week, I showed you the list of parasites for dogs, and there are dozens and dozens and dozens.”

Just as Fido and Spot’s veterinarian asks their human companions to collect stool samples as part of the dogs’ checkups, zookeepers monitor the color, consistency, and content of their charges’ waste, the teacher tells his class. The presence of tapeworms shows that an animal is sick, and if left untreated, could die. The most common way to find the pests, the teachers says, is to float a piece of fecal matter in water on a slide and then view it under a microscope.

The lecture is one of the times, Schulte says later, when the curriculum and students’ work in the zoo come together. Understanding the damage tapeworms can do and how to find them is an important zoology lesson and a vital job of animal caretakers.

When the class groans at a slide of a dog’s tapeworm-infested excrement, Schulte mocks their reaction. “This is what you see every morning,” he says in disbelief.

The teacher presents the slide because he wants his students to know what to look for so they can alert zookeepers with suspicions that an animal is sick. It’s hands-on learning at its best—or worst, depending on the strength of a student’s stomach.

The lecture also lends itself to lessons about how the Cincinnati Zoo is run. When the zoo imports a new group of cobras this year, Schulte explains, workers will quarantine them for 30 days to make sure they are free from parasites that could infect other animals.

FEEDING TIME: Hill and Reid, who are juniors in the school at the zoo, feed King penguins in the Wings of the World exhibit.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

By this point of the lecture, the juniors have become restless. The clock is nearing 11:30—when their half-hour lunch begins. They start packing up notebooks and gathering lunch bags. But Schulte doesn’t let them go until he returns their homework.

Without a bell to signal that class is over, Schulte simply says, “OK, go to lunch.”

The room empties quickly. The juniors take over the second of the zoo academy’s two classrooms, where they learn English and social studies. Some pull their lunches out of their bags; others disappear into the zoo’s restaurant and wander back with pizza, french fries, and other delicacies for the teenage palate.

Meanwhile, the seniors settle in for their noon class. The screeching and screams of horror during Schulte’s lecture are more of an act than anything else, they say.

“After lab, we can handle anything,” says Darielle Gulley, 17. “We just react like that so he doesn’t get up there for nothing.”

The Zoo Academy was once all about scooping poop, not analyzing it.

When the program started in 1976, students worked in the zoo for about four hours a day.

Ron Evans, a 1985 graduate, remembers arriving at the 75-acre facility in the Avondale neighborhood about four miles north of downtown and being told the English lessons would be as hard as those conducted in the city’s best high schools. When his first homework assignment was to find the nouns and verbs in a series of sentences, he knew it wouldn’t be a challenging academic experience.

For him, that was fine. He fell in love with gorillas as soon as he stepped into Gorilla World, the indoor rain forest where the apes live. He volunteered his Saturday mornings there and eventually was hired as a full-time zookeeper. Today, he is the head zookeeper for gorillas: “the best job in the world,” he says.

About 25 of the 100-some zookeepers here are graduates of the Zoo Academy. But not all are as lucky as Evans. With so few jobs available in caring for animals, and with employers now demanding a higher education, many of the graduates have had to find work elsewhere if they didn’t want to go to college.

KEEPING WATCH: A Garnett’s galago peers at a Zoo Academy student cleaning the lemur’s display in the Nocturnal House. Students gain hands-on experience with the animals at the zoo.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

Because so many academy graduates used to leave school without solid job prospects, the zoo threatened to cut off the relationship eight years ago if the school system didn’t change the program, says Schulte, who became the director of the four-person teaching staff seven years ago.

That’s when the district redesigned the program to scale back the amount of time spent on zoo tasks and to increase the academic rigor.

Today, freshmen interested in the Zoo Academy enroll in the Cincinnati Academy for Mathematics and Science and take the standard college-preparatory curriculum offered at that school-within-a-school at nearby Hughes High School.

In their junior year, they move into the spare and crowded schoolhouse at the zoo. Juniors start the day working with zookeepers from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. before taking classes. When they come back for their senior year, the day is reversed.

Over the past three years, 90 percent of the seniors have gone on to college.

While other zoos host schools, the Cincinnati program is the only one in which students work with animals at least two hours every day, according to Schulte. At the same time, the Zoo Academy has many of the elements of a typical high school.

One recent winter day, the security brigade from the school district arrives for an unannounced search for cellphones and pagers, which the district forbids students to carry on campuses.

Following up on the search the next day, Schulte dispenses Saturday-morning detentions to two offenders—one of whom protests because a classmate handed her the phone moments before the search began.

A day earlier, the administrator at Hughes High School who oversees the zoo program told Schulte that one of his seniors had narrowly failed the state math exam, a graduation requirement. Schulte knows the student had worked hard to pass the exam and will be crushed by the news.

By contrast, Schulte fights never-ending battles with some students to complete their homework, and with a few just to show up.

The teacher says he longs for the days when he was responsible solely for the classroom and could send his discipline problems to the vice principal to deal with. At the zoo school, though, he is teacher, vice principal, and team leader rolled into one.

The students have their complaints, too. They say the work is harder than the math and science magnet school they attended as freshmen and sophomores. Imholte says that he earned A’s and B’s in the 9th and 10th grades without difficulty; here he has to study hard to keep those grades.

GROSSED OUT: Despite a fear of snakes, 17-year-old Angela Hatcher learns how to handle them as part of her cage-cleaning duties.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard

And Zoo Academy students don’t get many breaks from their studies. While classmates on the main campus can choose electives that demand little academic work, Zoo Academy students’ only elective is the lab work with animals. And that’s more than manual labor; they’re required to write reports about their experiences.

Sometimes, the students also miss being part of a large high school where many of their friends are.

But most students say the chance to work with animals outweighs the downsides.

“I get to do what I want and be with animals,” says John Staubach, a 16-year-old junior. “Even cleaning the cages is better than being in a [regular] classroom.”

Stephania Hollis, 18, is at work in Insect World. She’s been assigned to change the foliage for the Australian walkingsticks—long brown bugs that indeed look like sticks with legs attached.

It’s the type of job often assigned to seniors. Juniors, on the other hand, get the dirty work—helping clean up the messes made overnight before the zoo opens to the public.

Hollis and the other seniors start their labs with zookeepers after lunch, while the juniors continue their classroom learning. The pace is relaxed, and they get to handle animals more often than the juniors do. In addition to working with animals on display, they care for the animals that live behind the scenes.

“Look,” Hollis says before she puts one of the walkingsticks back in the cage, “when I put him down, he’ll play dead.”

That’s exactly what happens.

“When I blow in there,” she adds, “they’re going to pretend to be like leaves.”

Later, the insects start walking in an unnatural motion. They sense that she’s a threat, Hollis explains, so they’re trying to look like scorpions.

‘Even cleaning the cages is better than being in a [regular] classroom.’

Hollis obviously loves being here. A few minutes earlier, she opened the door to the cage holding two golden-headed tamarins. The little South American monkeys hop over to her and start looking for food, but for Hollis, it’s just a social visit.

For all of her interest in and knowledge of animals, her experience at the Zoo Academy has taught her that she doesn’t want a career working with them. She plans to go to Morehead State University in Kentucky next fall, and wants to be a lawyer.

“A lot of keepers who work here, they work with the same animals every day,” Hollis says. “I want to work with different animals.”

Veterinary medicine is out of the question, she adds, because working with sick animals all day would be too depressing.

Hollis’ experience is not that uncommon, Schulte says. Even though every student comes in saying he or she wants a career working with animals, some change their minds after two years of firsthand experience.

“Expecting kids to make a life decision this early doesn’t make sense,” Schulte says. “It’s better to know now than after four years of college education. They still have a very strong college-prep education with a lot of science in it to fall back on.”

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