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Observing zoo residents is regular part of some students' schedule

Over the years, some of Barbara Kirkevold_s and Joan Lockard_s students have had some pretty unusual _classmates_ _ including a baby elephant, a pair of rambunctious juvenile grizzly bears, two troops of western lowland gorillas, orangutans, a northern fur seal and a family of laughing thrushes. Most University of Washington classes aren_t quite as diverse as Kirkevold_s, but then again it_s probably the only one in which undergraduate students use the Woodland Park Zoo or, occasionally, the Seattle Aquarium as their classroom. Psychology 419, or behavior studies of zoo and aquarium animals, primarily draws psychology and zoology majors. It has the serious purposes of expanding basic knowledge of animal behavior, and teaching students about conservation of endangered species and research methods, according to Kirkevold, a lecturer in the UW psychology department. The class is operated as a cooperative program between the UW and the zoo and aquarium. The course was started in 1975 by Lockard, a psychology professor, as an alternative to an animal behavior laboratory class that used rats, and it was designed for students who wished to do research on exotic species. Kirkevold, who earned her doctorate at the UW in 1995, now runs the program. _It takes years to accumulate data in the wild on a species and it is not always possible to observe animals in their natural habitat,_ said Kirkevold. _Studying in the zoo is a welcome alternative._ Hansa, the 20-month-old Asian elephant, is a focus for a number of Kirkevold_s students. She and her students are developing an ethogram, or list of behaviors, for young elephants. The goal is to gather data for at least the first five years of Hansa_s life. _We have no access to published data, if there is any, on captive baby elephants. It is hard to know what behaviors to monitor since there is no published data and nothing about elephant development,_ said Kirkevold. This work has implications beyond academic inquiry because the number of Asian elephants is steadily diminishing in the wild and captive stocks of the animals may be valuable in replenishing the species, according to Kirkevold. _There is a big question if captive breeding might work with elephants. It seems to be helping in the case of golden lion tamarins (South American marmosets) which are being replenished from zoo stocks. So you need to have a captive breeding program, but elephants are dangerous._ To observe Hansa and other animals, students are stationed outside zoo exhibits where the general public views zoo creatures. The students usually are off to one side, but have an unobstructed view of all the animals in a display. _We want them to be invisible to the animals being studied,_ said Kirkevold. _They can_t be in the elephant enclosure, for example, because elephants are smart and would wonder why a strange person was in their area. It also might affect their behavior and it could be dangerous for the students._ While on duty, the students, who typically work a two- or three-hour shift, use standardized forms to record the behavior of the animals. When observing the gorillas, for example, students work with two forms. One is a proximity form that is filled out every 5 minutes and notes where each member of the group is. The second is an activity form. The student watches a single animal for 15 minutes and records what its actions are every 30 seconds. Students following Hansa use a form to record what the young elephant is doing every 15 seconds. Both the students and the zoo or aquarium benefit from the cooperative program. _Ordinarily we tend to rely on our own staff when it comes to observing animals,_ said Bruce Bohmke, general curator and deputy director of the zoo. _But sometimes the students surprise us with what they observe and provide information that we wouldn_t otherwise get._ He cited the laughing thrushes and a siamang (an Asian gibbon) as examples where students made a difference. With the thrushes, which were nesting in a walk-through aviary, keepers wanted to know if an earlier brood of juveniles was helping the parents raise a new chick, typical behavior for the birds in the wild. The extra eyes provided the answer. The juveniles were doing some of the feeding, but not as much as occurs in the wild, perhaps because the zoo was providing food. The male siamang, heavily imprinted on people after being raised by humans at another zoo, was more interested in interacting with human visitors than with a female siamang. Bohmke and his staff partially covered up the windows on the siamang viewing area and assumed that would help divert some of the animal_s attention to his potential mate. They requested student observers, who found the coverings were a partial solution. As for the students, days at the zoo enable them to make a small contribution toward understanding animal behavior. _It is amazing to watch an animal and see the similarities in its behavior to human behavior,_ said David Rodriguez, a senior psychology major who spent three quarters at the zoo observing gorillas. _At first glance the gorillas are just animals, but when you watch them they each have a personality and react to each other differently. _It_s also interesting to see how the animals react to people and people to the animals. I saw one juvenile gorilla watch a little girl who stuck her tongue out and the gorilla did it in return. The gorillas also are sensitive to noise. Sometimes an adult gorilla will bang on the glass or toss something against it to quiet visitors._ ### For more information, contact Kirkevold at (206) 685-0866 or