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Feature   |  Spring 2006

Wild kingdom

Zoo animals captivate Purdue Agriculture students
Laura Rudolf

Aquatic veterinary medicine intern Laura Rudolf helps care for the thousands of fish and marine mammals, such as these Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (left), at Epcot ® Center's The Living Seas. Rudolf is one of many Purdue Agriculture students who get hands-on experience with zoo animals through Disney World's animal programs internships. (P hoto courtesy EPCOT ® Center, The Living Seas )

It was the last week of fall semester classes, and the temperature had been hovering around zero for several days. An early winter storm had dumped several inches of snow on much of Indiana. Bundled in a parka, Laura Rudolf made her way between classes across the Purdue University campus. It was a hectic time for most students, but the animal sciences major had more on her mind than finals—pending admission to Purdue's veterinary technology program, three part-time jobs and a spring semester internship.

One thing she wouldn't have to worry about was trudging through ice and snow for the rest of the winter. When Rudolf went to her Mooresville, Ind., home over the holidays, she spent her time going through her closet to find clothes suitable for a warmer climate. Rudolf would spend the next six months in Florida.

Nearly 1,000 miles away, Sara Caruso was also packing warm-weather gear into her suitcases, even though she would be leaving Florida for Indiana's colder clime. The cold would come as a shock to the Purdue senior, who had become acclimated to higher temps in the Sunshine State. She may have been leaving warm weather behind, but she'd be taking with her a wealth of knowledge and experience too large to fit in any suitcase.

Wild KingdomCaruso is one of 69 elite students who completed an animal programs internship fall semester at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Rudolf is among the 69 new interns—and one of three from Purdue—who took their place for the spring term.

Animals rule in the Magic Kingdom

Caruso and Rudolf represent the growing number of animal sciences majors who are preparing for careers with zoo animals. Internships are among the ways they gain experience.

The animal internship program at Disney World is the largest of its kind in the nation, and competition is stiff. Each semester, animal programs manager MichelleMatuszewski-May reviews more than 700 applications from students around the United States who are vying for one of the internships. A marine conservation biologist, Matuszewski-May looks for evidence of “a great passion for animals” in addition to academic and experiential qualifications. “ I try to match the internship to the student,” says Matuszewski-May, who fills 18 different types of positions at Animal Kingdom and Epcot Center's The Living Seas. Educational presenters make up the largest group, with about 20 interns. Other, more specialized positions have highly selective requirements and take only one to two students.

It was one of these specialized internships—aquatic veterinary medicine—to which Rudolf aspired. She began preparation a year ahead of time to tip the odds in her favor. “I wanted to be competitive, to stand out,” says Rudolf, who completed scuba diving certification last summer—a challenge in landlocked Indiana—to increase her chances of selection. She also had a meaty résumé: animal caretaker and oncology volunteer at Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine and research lab assistant in animal sciences. She also worked in a veterinary clinic and the fish area of a pet shop.

Rudolf's application was the type that catches Matuszewski-May's eye. A student who has some coursework in exotic vs. domestic animals, who volunteers at zoos or wildlife refuges, and has worked as a research assistant stands out, she says. “That's what makes the difference between a good applicant and a great one.”

Rudolf will work side-by-side with the aquatic vet team to care for between 34,000-45,000 fish and marine mammals at The Living Seas. She'll also have the opportunity to dive in the 5.7 million-gallon aquarium.

While Rudolf's work will be mainly behind the scenes, education presenters like Caruso are front and center with visitors. “They are the spokespeople for what we do and help share our message of animal conservation,” Matuszewski-May says.

“I've loved Disney my whole life,” says Caruso, who is still somewhat in awe of the experience at the 500-acre animal park. “I never dreamed that I would be working at Disney. Every day is different, and you learn something new. I love talking with the kids. They are so interested in animals.”




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