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Students go behind the scenes at the Greenville Zoo

Abbie Arvanites ’16 was among the first to learn that Walter and Autumn were expecting a new baby. And she was thrilled to get the inside scoop.

“Our class found out before the news was released to the public,” said Arvanites, a sociology major from Spartanburg. “It was exciting to feel a part of the Greenville Zoo community by having that knowledge.”

The baby Masai giraffe was nearly 158 pounds and was just over six feet long when he was born on February 2, 2016. He’s now known throughout the Upstate as Tatu, meaning “third child” in Swahili.

Spending time with zoo babies and their parents was just one of the special experiences that eight Furman students enjoyed as part of SOC 470, a new qualitative methods seminar last fall on “The Sociology of Zookeeping.”

The seminar, taught by Associate Professor of Sociology Ken Kolb, Ph.D., began with readings by sociologists and other scholars which discussed zoos in today’s society and then provided students with a chance to conduct fieldwork behind the scenes through a unique partnership with the Greenville Zoo.

The Greenville Zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and operated by the City of Greenville, attracts 300,000 visitors each year. The 14-acre facility features wildlife from around the world, including orangutans, giraffes, monkeys, and giant tortoises.

“Zoos offer a window into what we think about animals, nature, and even ourselves,” said Kolb, adding that he wanted students to see zoos, not just as entertainment or recreation, but from the perspective of those who work inside them.

Furman students spent at least four sessions shadowing zookeepers and learning from their years of experience as keepers carried out their day-to-day tasks.

“The zookeepers have a tremendous responsibility keeping the animals in their charge happy and healthy,” said Keith Gilchrist, general curator of the Greenville Zoo. “They need to have knowledge of multiple species’ natural histories, be able to build positive relationship with the animals (and humans), and have a working knowledge of basic maintenance and horticulture. Most of all, a good keeper should be driven to do whatever it takes to make sure the animals get the very best of care.”

“I think most people have a romanticized idea of what zookeepers do, and it was a good opportunity to let people see exactly what’s involved and how much the zoo keepers do on a daily basis, rain or shine,” said Gilchrist.

Feeding and training the animals, cleaning cages and exhibits, interacting with the public, and filling out paperwork were among the activities students observed. In their discussions with students, zookeepers also discussed the importance of the zoo’s role in encouraging conservation.

After completing field notes, interviews and personal research, students wrote 15- to 20-page papers for their final projects.

“In the mornings, the keepers were usually cleaning the cages… In the afternoons, keepers often worked on training with the animals, and I observed how necessary it was to be patient and calm,” said Hannah Wheeler ’16, a sustainability science and sociology major from Clarendon Hills, Ill. “Sometimes the animals were great, and sometimes they were not. The keepers seemed to understand that every training session could bring unforeseen challenges.

“Their jobs require a lot of diligence and there are many repetitive activities,” said Wheeler. “I grew to have a lot of respect for the zookeepers. It isn’t easy work!”

Kelly Pusch ’16, a sociology major from Summerfield, N.C., began working part-time in the concession stand and gift shop at the zoo last year and has continued to work there, even after the class was completed.

As part of her research, Pusch interviewed five different zookeepers who painted what she called “a diverse and unique picture of their lives and careers.”

“Zookeepers are very under-appreciated. All of them have years of experience and education, and no one sees that when a keeper is shoveling poop,” said Pusch. “People don’t see the bonds that the keepers have with the animals. They want to ensure all the animals live in healthy environments.”

Arvanites, who plans a career as an epidemiologist, said she would definitely recommend the course to future students.

“First and foremost, the subject matter is unique and zoos are enchanting places to be, but also conducting qualitative research is a refreshing and organic way for me to understand and create a theory as to how or why society—or a particular aspect of society—exists,” she said.

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