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Zoo and U of T Scarborough form educational partnership


Students get look at life behind the scenes

by Maria Saros Leung

A new undergraduate course at U of T Scarborough has brought the zoo into the classroom.

The Role of Zoos in Conservation is the result of a partnership between the Toronto Zoo and Professor Dudley Williams of life sciences at U of T Scarborough. Williams, who sits on the zoo’s board of management, said the partnership was a natural fit.

“We’re on each other’s doorsteps and the Metro Zoo’s role is changing towards conservation and biodiversity and taking a more educational role.”

The semester-long course, launched this past September, focuses on how zoos are taking an active role in conservation through captive breeding, new technologies and assisted reproduction in wild populations. The course also dovetails nicely with U of T Scarborough’s new program in conservation biology, which began in 2006, Williams noted.

Guest lecturers from the Toronto Zoo, as well as the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Western Plains Zoo in Australia, visit the class weekly to speak about their areas of expertise. It’s an approach that’s resonating with students as they consider their own futures.

“The most interesting part of the course was getting perspectives from people from different fields. The lecturers spoke about how they got into their fields and their education and experience, which is really beneficial for upper-year students,” said Vithuja Vijayakanthan, a fourth-year integrative biology and toxicology student.

The course also includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Toronto Zoo’s reproductive, veterinary and nutritional facilities. The zoo’s work in conservation is not obvious to most visitors, said Muaz Nasir, an environmental science and integrated biology student.

“Usually when you go to the zoo, you don’t get the conservation message,” said Nasir, who had all the credits he needed to graduate but stayed an extra semester to take the course. “But it is intertwined with the different educational programs that they offer.We’re learning in the course that they do a lot of behind-the-scenes conservation.”

“We call it the invisible zoo,” said Dr. William Rapley, executive director of conservation, education and research at the Toronto Zoo. “When people think of a zoo, they think of a park setting, a family outing. In behind there’s a lot of very serious work that goes on that people are unaware of.”

For Rapley, the partnership is a good way for the Toronto Zoo to inform students of its active role in protecting wildlife.

“We have 40 species survival programs, Canadian endangered species breeding programs and more recently, we have begun protecting habitats through conservation outreach.” Its Centre for Sustainable Development, currently in the planning stage, will usher a new era of conservation, said Rapley, providing a home for the zoo’s various educational outreach programs.

The U of T Scarborough course, an unofficial educational outreach program, is already yielding benefits.

“What I find with the students is that they work in lab, work with genetics and DNA, but when they actually start looking at or working with whole animals and whole ecosystems it’s almost a shock to them. It’s something that all of society needs, to connect with nature.”

Williams agreed that the course has been an eye-opener for his students.

“There’s an amount of empathy for warm furry animals that are endangered. But to have the curator of fish come in and explain, that yes, fish need to be conserved as well, the students gain some cold hard facts as to the seriousness of the decline of plant and animal populations that share this planet.”

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