Psychology in Animal Programs

Jacqueline Ogden, PhD
Director, Animal Programs at Walt Disney World Resort

Some of my strongest early memories are of time spent at the San Diego Zoo — attending all of the education programs that I could, watching the monkeys or petting the goats in the contact area. I still treasure the memories and pictures of those times. Like many “animal people,” I also spent much time in the natural spaces near my house, and had a series of unusual pets, including snails and snakes. But unlike some animal people, I’ve always been as interested in human animals as non-human animals.

During my undergraduate years, I focused my energies on human critters, and studied industrial/organizational psychology, which led to a series of jobs in people management. But I retained my interest in animals and conservation, and in my late-20s decided to combine my interest in people management with my passion for conservation. This led to an exploration of what turned out to be a wide variety of careers available in the animal and conservation arena (it turns out that my high school biology teacher was incorrect that the only animal-related career is that of a veterinarian). But based on my academic background, I decided to take my interest in psychology and expand it to the field of animal behavior. My choice of a graduate program was clinched when I found a school that not only was strong academically, where I would be able to do interesting research, but where my future advisor was seeking a student with an ultimate interest in zoo administration.

So I packed my bags and headed off from the land of coffee and mountains (Seattle) to the land of humidity and hills (Atlanta). And to a great four years of primate research at Zoo Atlanta, as my advisor (Terry Maple, PhD) was not only a psychology professor at Georgia Tech, but the director of Zoo Atlanta. These four years had some real highlights. Standouts included the case study of the introduction of a male gorilla to a new naturalistic exhibit and eventually to a family group. This was especially notable given that this gorilla (“Willie B”), had been housed inside and alone for 27 years. [Although Willie B is no longer with us, having since died of old age, he lives on in the two young gorillas he eventually sired.] I also met my future husband during that time, who, luckily for me, is very flexible and supportive of my career. So flexible that, upon my getting an offer to conduct my dissertation research at the San Diego Zoo, agreed to get married, pack it all up, and move across country with our two cats, all in a two-week period.

I thus went to the Zoological Society of San Diego to be part of their well-respected research department — the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. My research initially focused on an evaluation of the impact of a new gorilla exhibit on both the gorillas and the zoo visitors. Key was a finding that the pre-recorded natural sounds that were included in the exhibit had a significant and positive effect on the zoo visitors — both in terms of how they felt about the experience and even what they got out of the experience. After receiving my PhD in general/experimental psychology with a specialization in animal behavior and a minor in management, my pre-doctoral fellowship turned into a post-doctoral position, and eventually a move into a curatorial role as the Children’s Zoo Curator. This position afforded many learning opportunities, from managing a large team of people, to learning about educational methods and animal management. I was especially focused on learning about conservation education, as I felt this represented a significant lack in my training. Imagine my surprise as I sat in a class focused on the foundation of instructional methods, only to discover that it was a repeat of my psychology foundations course. Guess my psychology background paid off here, as well. And, I managed to keep my hand in research, switching to more study of human behavior — in particular the impact of zoo experiences on conservation-related knowledge, attitudes and behavior.

But as I was happily toiling away at the San Diego Zoo, my colleagues in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) started talking about this new animal park that was being built in Florida. The AZA is a very strong, very active professional association that accredits North American zoos and aquariums that are dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for their guests and a better future for all living things. At this time, many members of the AZA were a-buzz about this new park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that was being built in Orlando. Although I was very happy in San Diego, I was intrigued by the possibility of helping to open a new park, and was especially drawn by the possibility of being able to inspire millions of guests every year to conservation action. Especially guests who weren’t necessarily already well-versed in the animal and conservation arena.

So I dragged my husband back across the country, and re-settled in Central Florida. I’m now the director of Animal Programs for the Walt Disney World Resort. This means that my team is responsible for the animal care, the veterinary care, the education and the science programs in the areas of Walt Disney World where we take care of animals, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, Epcot’s The Living Seas, and the Tri-Circle D Ranch at Fort Wilderness. Both Disney’s Animal Kingdom and The Living Seas are AZA — accredited facilities. And, I love it. I’ve learned an incredible amount working for The Disney Company, I have a great team, and I truly believe that we inspire our guests every day to care more about animals.

Although this role may seem a bit odd for someone with a doctorate in psychology, I find that I use my academic training constantly — if imperfectly. My understanding of human behavior comes into play in virtually every meeting that I’m in (my understanding of non-human primate behavior comes in handy here too). I’ve particularly found my background to be critical as the zoo and aquarium world has become more focused on influencing changes in conservation-related behavior. I don’t use my training perfectly, but I’ve found that a little understanding of animal behavior — both human and non-human — can go a long way.

(Originally published in the April 2004 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)