Building a better zoo

(Edmonton) For the second year, students from Animal Science 378 are taking their education out of the classroom and into the field in a collaborative project with the Edmonton Valley Zoo.

Clover Bench, University of Alberta assistant professor of applied ethology, spearheaded the project, which has students study the natural behaviours of a particular animal and design a new enclosure based on those behaviours. The results of the project are shared with zoo officials to help them make the most of a $50-million renovation budget recently approved by the city council.

“This is one of those projects where students really see the impact that they can have as professionals before they even complete the course,” said Bench. “It benefits everyone involved. The students apply their knowledge in a real-world scenario, the city saves the cost of hiring designers and the animals get well-researched enclosures specifically designed for their behavioural needs.”

Students are given specifications for space, timelines and budget when they begin the project. Each group of five or six students is assigned a different animal to study. They use their knowledge of animal behaviours to design what they see as an ideal enclosure based on the animals’ behaviour patterns.

This year, as the Valley Zoo begins a transformation from its current fairy-tale theme to a representation of the native northern Alberta wildlife, the students worked with many indigenous species, such as Arctic foxes and river otters, as well as more exotic animals like spider monkeys and raptors.

Milton Ness, head veterinarian with the Valley Zoo, said the partnership with the U of A has yielded some inspiring results over the past two years, and he is looking forward to continued input from the animal behaviour students.

"Our collaboration with the University of Alberta allows students to better understand the complexity and care which goes into proper zoo-enclosure design,” he said. “Having students work on design projects for the Edmonton Valley Zoo gives us a real insight and appreciation for what others expect of the enclosures and aids me in making recommendations for new exhibits as they are developed.”