Student befriends rowdy macaws and other animals at zoo internship

University Park, Pa. — When Jennifer Pohl first walked into the macaw enclosures at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, she was bombarded with shrieks and screams. She was a potential threat to the birds. However, after a few weeks of bringing them food, and using calming phrases coupled with visual cues, the shrieking subsided and she was greeted by most of the birds with recognition. As part of her internship experience as a Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management student, Pohl has been building relationships with not just macaws but many other animals from around the world who reside at the zoo in Powell, Ohio.

Pohl has been working during the summer in the zoo’s Animal Encounters Village (where renowned zookeeper Jack Hanna also works), which gives zoo patrons an opportunity to learn about animals up close. She helps with the behind-the-scenes care and training of the animals, and she also handles the animals on stage during the zoo’s interactive, hands-on educational shows.

One of her favorite parts of the internship, she says, is befriending many new and sometimes exotic animals. Among her favorite animals are the zoo’s macaws, particularly Buddy, a macaw that doesn’t talk much but can perform many tricks. Macaws, she says, have a tested intelligence of a 4-year-old human, which is one of the reasons she had to spend so much time getting on their good side.

“It’s really unique forming relationships with macaws,” she said. “If you don’t form a bond with them, they won’t let you handle them.”

Her experience isn’t limited to macaws, though. She has also become quite fond of Lurch, a turkey vulture; Peanut, a northern Saw-whet owl; Mrs. Nesbit, a tarantula; Yogi, an Australian sugar glider (similar to a flying squirrel), and many other insects, reptiles, birds and amphibians.

Each day brings new activities and adventures, whether it is arriving at 6 a.m. to feed the zoo’s baby camel, Carmel, or delivering a program about a cheetah during an educational stage show, or staying past normal zoo hours to help host private celebrations for donors.

A large focus of the internship has been filling in gaps in her knowledge of exotic or foreign species, so that she can better educate others. The zoo’s education sessions all center on the conservation of nature and animals, and Pohl finds great satisfaction from being able to be a source of knowledge for eager, excited children. “I love seeing children’s eyes light up when they see an animal -- either one they don’t know about and want to learn more, or something they’ve seen before, such as our dwarf rabbit , Heidi,” she said. “I love being able to pass that knowledge on, and fill them with a yearning to love and respect nature and animals.”

Pohl has always known that she wanted to work with animals and had an intense fascination with them from the time she began looking at picture books. However, she always thought she’d be more of a mammal person until she came to Penn State and had the opportunity to work with permanently injured birds of prey at the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek. She has taken what she learned at Shaver’s Creek, along with what she has learned from all her other Penn State classes, to help her distinguish herself at the Columbus Zoo.

“Without Penn State’s academic background and focus on experiential teaching, I’m not sure I’d ever be as successful as I am now,” said Pohl. “Penn State really broadened my horizons.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010