New Undergraduate Certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Conservation

Friday, July 21, 2017
The Andean bear is threatened through hunting and loss of habitat in Colombia. Students in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment study local, national and international endangered species and conservation efforts. (Photo: iStock)

A new certificate developed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' School of Natural Resources and the Environment will introduce University of Arizona students to the increasingly important role that zoos and aquariums play in wildlife conservation and management, and help them understand how to maintain sustainable wildlife populations in a zoo setting.

Zoos and aquariums worldwide have joined with local, national and international agencies to protect animal species. In Arizona, for example, the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson is involved in Saving Animals From Extinction, or SAFE, to raise awareness about the vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise species in the Gulf of California. The Phoenix Zoo is raising species native to Arizona for release to the wild, including the black-footed ferret, Chiricahua leopard frog, Gila topminnow and desert pupfish.

Through the undergraduate certificate in zoo and aquarium conservation, students will have the opportunity to participate in such efforts during an internship they design with a zoo or aquarium — local or distant — that is accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Most zoos have internship programs, including the Reid Park Zoo, Phoenix Zoo and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

"Many of us still remember when a zoo was a bear in a cage with a bowl of water. Zoos today have gone beyond that, to feature more naturalistic environments and to provide visitors with a sense that they are involved in the conservation of animals," said John Koprowski, professor and associate director of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

"Zoos are fully involved in the area of conservation, of breeding the animals rather than bringing them in from the wild, studying the physiology and health of animals in their care and performing research in the field with those species."

Koprowski grew up in Cleveland, and his interaction with animals as a child was with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. It was his first chance to see animals up close and learn about their challenges.

"We're seeing more students coming to our major with that kind of background," Koprowski said. "They haven't had the experience and exposure with animals in the wild, but they come in just as excited and impassioned with the topic of conservation. Modern zoos and aquariums have an important educational function, of providing the opportunity for people to experience the natural world while living in areas that do not have easy access to wildlife."

The certificate, consisting of three courses and an internship, can be tailored by students to fit their major and/or minor and career goals. Two courses are required: zoo and aquarium conservation and conservation genetics, in addition to an elective course chosen from a list of 16 options.

"Because students are only taking a few courses, they can fit that into an already busy academic program," Koprowski said.

For students interested in a career in the timely and important efforts of international conservation of biodiversity, the certificate is meant to enhance their competitiveness for positions as zoo and aquarium caretakers, scientists or education specialists, as well as field biologists, endangered species biologists, and wildlife and fisheries biologists working for government agencies or international conservation organizations.

The required foundational course is zoo and aquarium conservation, taught by Koprowski, who designed the curriculum to provide students with a sense of the modern zoo or aquarium and its role in the conservation of imperiled species. Offered for the first time last year, the demand "has been incredible, with the course filling almost immediately after being opened up," he said.   

The certificate is one of only a few opportunities in the nation for students to obtain formal classroom training and hands-on experience in zoos and aquariums.

So far, the certificate has drawn interest from students in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Systems and the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in CALS, along with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Department of Psychology in the College of Science, among others.

In addition to the certificate, several undergraduate majors and graduate programs in wildlife and fisheries science and conservation biology address endangered species. Graduate students have worked on the conservation of African lions, white and black rhinos, the Andean bear and the Ganges River dolphin — species that are far from Arizona.  

"We also have collaborations working on the conservation of local species like the narrow-headed garter snake, the Sonoran tiger salamander, Mount Graham squirrel and others," Koprowski said. "This certificate is a new opportunity for students. The hope is that we provide another tool to the toolbox of people interested in the conservation of animals and their habitat in the wild." 


New Undergraduate Certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Conservation
John Koprowski
School of Natural Resources and the Environment
Extra Info

Undergraduate Certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Conservation

The certificate is a specialized program of study for students wishing to pursue a career in zoological parks and aquariums. Few universities provide opportunities to specialize in zoo biology in the U.S. The 12-unit certificate includes three courses and an internship. For more information and a checklist of requirements, see

Other academic programs in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment: