It’s all happening at the zoo, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, that is—the only zoo on a college campus in the United States accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
The 10-acre zoo on Santa Fe’s Northwest Campus is home to more than 70 different animal species, including bald eagles, white-throated capuchin monkeys, white-handed gibbons, American alligators, Matschie’s tree kangaroo, and Asian small-clawed otters.
Visitors can view these species and many other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in a naturally shaded environment that helps both the animals and visitors beat the Florida heat. The mulch-lined quarter mile trail is stroller and wheelchair accessible.
“For me it’s inspiring people… inspiring the students about animals, and about the living world around them,” said zoo director Jonathan Miot. “But the benefit is we have a zoo that’s open to the public and guests can come in and be just as inspired. It’s creating that sense of awe, creating that sense of connection with animals.”
Like everyone else at Santa Fe, Miot is delighted that the zoo has just been re-accredited for another five years. AZA president Dan Ashe presented a plaque recognizing the zoo’s achievement when he visited in March.
“What you have here is not just a good zoo, not just a great zoo, but one of the best in the world,” Ashe said, during the ceremonies. The nonprofit AZA is the accrediting organization for top zoos and aquariums in 13 countries, including the United States.
Dr. Paul Broadie, Santa Fe’s president, was also on hand for the event and praised zoo students and staff.
“The fact that we’re student-centered and producing graduates who go all over the world shows the impact that we have each day,” he said.
Ten full-time staff members coordinate zoo operations and lead about 100 students enrolled in the college’s zoo animal technology program. The students take alternating shifts on the grounds as part of their training.
The program has an 85 percent placement rate, and in the fall semester of 2023, it will offer a four-year degree for the first time, Miot said.
He said the program consistently get high praise for two things, starting with the teamwork of the students.
“They work in teams from Day 1 to the end of their five-semester program,” Miot said. “A close second is their experience with guests…the work of talking to guests, educating guests. That’s crucial to being a zookeeper. If you are not educating the guests, you’re not doing the work you’re supposed to do as a zookeeper.”
The weekend we visited, Ken Belcher, in his last year at the program was on duty with River, the zoo’s two-year-old bald eagle, who came to the zoo as a rescue bird.
“I always wanted to work with animals since I was a little kid,” Belcher said. “I never wanted to do anything else. It’s the way it’s always been.”
Just like the rest of us, COVID has impacted the lives of zoo animals. Even as the pandemic appears to be waning, the zoo continues social distancing for the sake of the animals.
“We are working with our vets quite closely to make sure our animals get the best care,” said Maggie Curtis, a weekend assistant zoo curator.
“Right now, even if guests don’t have masks on, the vets have given us the guidelines of keeping 12 feet between the animals and the guests,” she said. “There are a handful of areas that are still closed off, but otherwise you will see we have temporary fences up. From here forward, it will always be those 12 feet.”
Matschie’s tree kangaroos, caracals and warty pigs are less visible as these animals are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19.
In addition to serving students, the zoo serves the community in a variety of ways. It is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., every day of the year except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. Admission fees range from free to $8.
The zoo also hosts special events and activities. Coming up on April 16 in honor of Earth Day will be an all-day Party for the Planet. World Tree Kangaroo Day is set for May 21, with Zookeeper Day on July 23-24. In August, the zoo plans to launch an all-new Brew at the Zoo event, featuring craft beers and food.
The facility recently resumed its Zookeeper for a Day program, giving children and adults a first-hand look at how zookeepers care for animals (cost: $30).
There are also meet-and-greet encounters with Larry, Curly and Moe, the zoo’s resident Galapagos tortoises, the world’s largest tortoise species ($20 per person). Less costly ($5) are the spoonbill feedings in the aviary, where visitors over 5 years of age can feed the bird their favorite food, fish. There are also $5 meet and greets with some species considered animal ambassadors.
For more information, visit the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo website.
This is the latest in a series featuring museums, parks and other family friendly activities in North Florida. To view previous stories, click here.