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Prospective Trainers Get a Real Lesson in Wildlife

After months of waking up at 5:30 a.m., seven days a week, Tammy Batson is ready to sleep in. And after graduation Saturday, she and 22 classmates at the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management Program are not only able to sleep in, they can sleep in.

One of the requirements for the two-year program is that each student spend one night a week at the campus animal compound “underneath the stars,” Batson said. “Someone has to be there at all times to monitor the animals. It’s not that bad; actually, it can be kind of nice. And there’s a barn that we keep hay and feed in, so if it rains we can go in there.”

Early morning hours and night watch duty are just the start. “Going into this program they tell you that it’s a commitment,” Batson said, “and that’s exactly what they mean.” And here commitment means two full school years of commitment; no summer vacation, no Christmas holiday, no spring break. As the program brochure states: “The animals do not take holidays, so neither do the students.”

If anyone receives an F in any of the classes for the major, that student is automatically dismissed from the program. A few absences or tardies can also lead to dismissal. Therefore, it’s not surprising that of the 50 students accepted into the program each year, on average, only slightly more than half graduate.

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“My family thinks I’m out of my mind for giving up my vacations and spending so much time with the program,” Batson said. “I guess you do have to be a little bit crazy to go through with it.”

According to Assistant Director Lynne Doria, , the exotic animal program is unique. It not only educates students in the care and feeding of animals, it also teaches them how to train animals and how to put on educational shows. About 80% of the graduates go on to work with animals. Many work in zoos, aquariums and theme parks across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Batson came to the program after earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of California, Irvine. “They call it ‘animal science’ but my only experience was with domestics,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about exotics; they’re absolutely fascinating. Before, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but then I decided I’d rather work with healthy animals instead of sick ones all the time.”

After spending one school year observing, feeding and cleaning the nearly 200 animals at the compound, the students choose the animals they would like to work with. One of Batson’s choices was Snips.

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“Before I saw Snips, I would never have described a porcupine as cute,” she said. “But Snips is absolutely adorable. When I carry him around the stage, everyone just goes, ‘Aaahhh.’ I kiss his little nose all the time and I buy him roses--porcupines like to eat roses.”

With his good looks and talent, Snips was destined for fame beyond Moorpark and has gone on to national commercials. As a baby, he appeared in an advertisement that compared his prickly quills to a woman’s unshaven legs.

And a few of his colleagues at the compound have even made it to the silver screen. A large green lizard named Mazia will be sharing the spotlight with Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick in a movie scheduled for release this summer. And Bette the sheep was famous for 15 seconds as she pulled up the covers to make her bed in “Big Top Pee Wee.”

Like all stars, Snips is sometimes reluctant to perform in front of his adoring fans and would rather be left alone. “I feel kind of bad for forcing him out to do a show at times when he doesn’t want to go, but I know I’m not hurting him,” Batson said. “I imagine it’s something like having to get up early and not wanting to.”

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“Truthfully, I don’t like the idea of them having to do tricks. But young children want to be entertained. So we get their attention with the tricks, and then we take advantage of it by slipping in a bunch of important information.”

Batson added that all the tricks the animals do, such as jumping over obstacles or shaking their head (as if to say “no”), are actions that they would naturally do in the wild.

“We never dress the animals up in costumes,” she said.

Snips’ performance consists of being carried out to the stage, being carried around so the audience can get a better view of his fuzzy tummy and then being given a banana to eat. It doesn’t seem too demanding, but nevertheless, Snips just isn’t in the mood to perform sometimes.

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And forcing a grumpy porcupine to do something that he’s not in the mood to do does have its hazards. “He’s gotten mad at me before and whacked his tail into my hand,” Batson said.

“It hurt, but the quills are easy to pull out and they heal in no time,” she said. And the quick flares of temper haven’t hurt the relationship as far as Batson is concerned.

“I’m glad to be graduating, but I’m very sad to be leaving Snips.”


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