GAINESVILLE — Tucked away on the campus of Santa Fe Community College is a place where people can not only learn about animals, but learn from them.
Although the Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo has been around for 35 years, it remains unknown to most Florida residents.
That's not surprising. After all, the sprawling 10-acre nature center isn't home to lions, elephants or other common zoo critters. Instead, visitors are treated to the sight of about 70 smaller species from the most remote corners of the earth, including African leopard tortoises, South American guanacos (similar to llamas) and Matschie's tree kangaroos from New Guinea.
"The focus here is a little bit different," said Jack Brown, who teaches zoo animal technology at SFCC and has served as zoo director since 1985. "We try to provide an atmosphere that people aren't likely to find anywhere else."
What makes the teaching zoo a truly unique animal habitat has as much to do with the people who care for the critters as the critters themselves. As the name implies, the zoo functions as a hands-on learning center for young people eyeing a future career in the business.
The 110 student workers from the school's zoo animal technology program do everything from conducting guided tours to cleaning cages. Being in the trenches gives students a penultimate perspective of what it's like to work in the business, Brown said.
"One of the first things they learn is that it's often very hard work that has little glamor to it," Brown said. "But if they are dedicated, there are plenty of personal rewards to be had."
Visitors to the Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo will find plenty of rewards as well. Within its lush oak- and hickory-canopied confines lies a rare Central Florida jewel. A few strides down a wandering path is all it takes to become lost in the wonders of nature.
About three-quarters of the species inhabiting the zoo can be found only in the most elite U.S. zoos. Some animals, like the Perdido Key beach mouse and the Matschie's tree kangaroo, are rarely seen in the wild.
Zoo curator Kathy Russell says that having such a variety of rare species enables the student staffers to interact with the types of animals they may encounter in their careers.
"What they learn here is invaluable," Russell said. "When you go looking for work at a large metropolitan zoo, or a place like SeaWorld or Busch Gardens, it's a big plus to be able to tell your prospective boss that you've worked around lemurs and rare gibbons."
That was the objective when the college established the zoo in 1970. Built on a former pasture, the zoo originally had mainly Florida reptiles and birds. As the program expanded in size and scope, so did the animal collection.
Some additions came by way of fortuitous circumstances. The 16 resident Perdido Key beach mice were part of a 2004 rescue effort to save a wild colony found in the Panhandle that was being threatened by the approach of Hurricane Ivan. Fewer than 500 of the mice are believed to survive in the wild.
Brown says that while the zoo may function primarily as a laboratory for the zoo technology program, many of the exhibits are designed to enhance the experience of the visiting public — children in particular.
"Just about every exhibit was designed with kids in mind," Brown said. "We love having them here."
Youngsters will certainly enjoy many of the zoo's features, including up-close interaction with ocelots by way of a special glass viewing area designed into the animals' habitat.
Another popular tour stop is the reptile house, which contains several species of snakes and tortoises and even a couple of poison arrow frogs from Costa Rica.
Because safety is a top priority of the zoo management, all visitors must be accompanied by a tour guide. Individual tours are available weekdays between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and must be scheduled three days in advance of the visit.
On weekends, tours are offered about every 30 minutes. There is no charge for the tour other than normal admission prices.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)