Learning from a Zoo on Campus

Tel Aviv University in Israel is the only university in the world to have an unconventional zoo that studies and breeds local and endangered animals, conservation being another activity.

Published: 30th March 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th March 2015 12:27 PM   |  A+A-

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A zoo is no novelty today. But this one is, considering it is in an urban area and is part of a university. The Tel Aviv University (TAU), Tel Aviv, Israel, is believed to be the only university that houses a zoo. The TAU zoo is hidden in plain sight in the urban sprawl of north Tel Aviv. You may not find it unless you are looking for it or take notice of the birds perched on the walls surrounding the zoo. While most departments of Zoology conduct studies on mice or other rodents, TAU offers a unique experience to students of zoology.

zoo2.jpgHome to local animal species

The I Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research is part of TAU’s Department of Zoology. It is home to many different species of animals, most of which are indigenous to Israel. Describing the nature of animals housed in the zoo, Dr Noga Kronfeld-Schor, the Department Chair, says, “You will not find animals like giraffes, monkeys and lions, which are found in other zoos, here. We instead try to study how to keep and breed local animals, endangered animals and less fascinating (to the general public) animals like amphibians.”

About 40 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, 60 species of birds, and five species of amphibians call TAU their home. The history of this rich collection of exotic, indigenous and endangered animals dates back to 1931, before the birth of Israel. The facility began as the Biological-Pedagogical Institute with a mandate to train school teachers and “transfer information and knowledge about Israel’s nature and wildlife to the immigrants,” says Schor. The institute changed names and affiliation a few times before it was inducted as the first department of TAU in 1981. It is not common for universities to have zoos and especially not one that has wild animals. The department thereby got three acres of land for the Garden for Zoological Research and another three acres for the Botanical Gardens. According to Schor, till date, it remains the largest department of the university.

Activities of the zoo

zoo4.jpgConservation is one of the prime activities of the zoological garden. Researchers here study the reproductive strategies of many species with an aim to reintroduce animals born in the zoo back to nature.

The department rescued an endemic fish species (scientific name: Acanthobrama Telavivensis) and released the fish into Tel Aviv’s Yarkon river a few years ago. Two years ago, a toad species was about to go extinct as a result of the construction of a mall on a winter pond in north Israel. “The total population of this species was just the number of toads in that pond. When we heard about this, we went there and collected a few hundred tadpoles. Everyone said that it would be impossible to keep them in captivity, that they would die, that they will not reproduce and they would not be able to hibernate in summer,” recounts Schor. They decided to try anyway, because there was nothing to lose and a lot more to gain if they succeeded. “And thanks to our experienced staff, they have survived. With the help of the Nature Reserve Authority, we are creating a new pond and will release them next year,” she shares.

In addition, researchers also succeeded in returning the white-tailed eagle to the Hula Valley and the lanner falcon and griffon vulture to the skies over the Carmel mountains after about 20 years of sustained conservation practices.

Just like the toads, there’s a story behind how most animals in the zoo got there. While some injured birds were rescued and put in the custody of the zoo, some reptiles that were being smuggled into the country found their way here after the smugglers were nabbed.

Research on subjects of conservation, behaviour, decision-making and biological control is carried out at the zoological garden. The department of zoology offers students a unique environment to carry out research thanks to the zoological garden. “We provide a platform for the study of wild animals. We have the facilities, know-how, and expert keepers, who can not only keep but breed these animals, to facilitate research,” says Dr Shai Meiri, who is the head of the zoological garden.

Research carried out at the department is diverse. Researchers are studying the navigation techniques used by bats, learning patterns among sparrows, behaviour among day-active rodents, obsessive compulsive disorder among rodents and many other interesting aspects of animals. Twenty four full time faculty members, supplemented by staff at the zoological garden make the department a singular learning ground for students.

The zoological garden also supplements teaching programmes in schools and colleges. Studies at the zoo are an integral part of the TAU zoology students’ coursework. Students from other universities, colleges and teachers’ seminaries, instructors from the Society for the Protection of Nature and wardens from the Nature Reserves Authority also visit the zoological garden for teaching and learning purposes.

The general public can also request a visit to the zoological gardens for a guided tour. This guided tour is offered in conjunction with the Nature Campus initiative of TAU. The department is planning on revamping infrastructure to allow for more defined pathways and upgrading the cages for the animals to enhance the experience for the public.

A walk around the zoo

It is not uncommon to see peacocks perching on the compound walls of the zoo, offering a spectacular view to passersby on the road along the zoo. Geese from the zoo have been known to have flown out to a highway close to the facility while other birds are known to have made their way all the way to Lebanon. The open atmosphere brings visitors close to these animals in their own habitat. Meiri points out that while all these animals can been found throughout Israel, seeing them at a close range would not be possible in the deserts and mountains of the country. Some birds come to nest at the zoo and take off soon after. A defined pathway guides a visitor through the zoo, but one is always aware that he/she is intruding into the privacy of the animals. Meiri is quick to warn this reporter as we make our way through some bushes, “Do not panic if a goose appears. She could be nesting in there.”

zoo6.jpgMammals like mountain gazelles, birds like flamingos, pelicans, black swans, peacocks, geese, and ducks roam freely in the zoo. While reptiles, amphibians, endangered animals and birds such as the black ibis; carnivorous animals like mongooses, otters, crocodiles, hyenas, foxes, caracal cats, foxes, and wild boars; birds of prey like vultures and owls; invasive (not indigenous to Israel) birds like parrots and mynas  and animals that are naturally shy around human beings are kept in captivity.

“Many birds have made the zoological garden their home by choice, mainly to nest here because they find this to be a safe environment,” says Dr Ron Elazari, the Administrative Director of the zoological garden. The staff at the zoo have interesting tales about every animal. One of the zoo keepers, Ehud, fondly recounts the story of a flock of geese that were kept in a cage for a long time. He narrates, “We did not expect them to know how to fly when they were taken out of the cage and for a long time they did not fly. But then we got a call from the highway police that one of our geese was on the highway. Traffic was stopped until we reached the spot to pick up the goose.”

Opportunities for Indian students

The department welcomes students from all over the world, including India. Students who may be interested in the research going on at the zoological garden can approach the faculty and apply for suitable positions at the department. Israel and India together offer many scholarships to Indian students who wish to study in Israel. These include post-doctoral fellowships and summer scholarships for undergraduate students. For more information about these scholarships, students can visit the websites of the Israeli Council for Higher Education and Indian Embassy in Israel.

 susmita.vsb@gmail.com

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