Sophomore Explores Animal Behavior and Builds Alumni Connections at Bergen County Zoo
Sophomore Lauren Velazquez spent her summer learning about animal behavior and connecting with F&M alumni during an internship at the Bergen County Zoo in Paramus, N.J.
Velazquez learned about the opportunity while volunteering at the F&M Vivarium, a behavioral research facility housing rodents, reptiles, invertebrates and nonhuman primates. Her personal connection to the zoo made the internship especially appealing.
“When I saw a listing for the Bergen County Zoo, my face immediately lit up,” Velazquez said. “I’ve been attending that zoo since I was very young.”
Velazquez worked closely with Victoria O’Connor ’16, the zoo’s supervisor of enrichment, training and welfare. In this role, O’Connor creates and implements training and enrichment programs, monitors animal welfare, conducts research, and plans educational events for zoo visitors.
When O’Connor had the opportunity to hire a seasonal employee for the summer, she reached out to Professor of Psychology Meredith Bashaw and asked her to share the opening with students. Velazquez’s experience made her a perfect fit.
“Between her comfort with the zoo and her history working at the vivarium, she was a great match,” O’Connor said.
The position focused on animal welfare and enrichment, which Velazquez said encompassed a wide variety of daily tasks, “from participating in owl research to putting sunscreen on potbellied pigs.”
She also took on a summer-long project to update reptile enclosures and amphibian and arthropod tanks and developed unexpected skills with power tools while building a tower for the zoo’s coatis to climb on.
“It’s been a really rewarding project. I like seeing how the animals enjoy their space,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez had the chance to connect with additional F&M alumni in June, when O’Connor organized an alumni event at the zoo. The program included breakfast, a customized educational program, and a guided tour.
“We had a beautiful day and received great feedback on the event,” said O’Connor. She hopes to host similar programs in the future and help F&M students connect with alumni who studied animal behavior.
O’Connor encouraged F&M students to reach out to alumni for advice on potential career paths and to take advantage of all that F&M’s Animal Behavior program has to offer.
“It truly is a rarity in undergraduate education, with incredible professors who seek to help inside and outside of the classroom, and the vivarium for hands-on experience,” O’Connor said.
Through the internship, Velazquez said she gained skills such as problem-solving, teamwork and effective communication that will serve her well in any profession. Her summer experience also offered valuable insight into animal behavior and zoo management.
“There’s so much that goes into keeping the animals happy and healthy,” Velazquez said. “For every content animal, there is a team of keepers working around the clock to ensure the best care.”
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