LEO Zoological Conservation Center Welcomes New Baby Giraffe – and SHU Students

News Story: April 24, 2013

A baby Rothschild giraffe, born in March at the LEO Zoological Conservation Center (LEO ZCC) in Greenwich, has garnered significant media attention, especially after she was named “Sandy Hope” to commemorate those lost in the tragic Newtown shooting. While previously unknown to many in the region outside of Greenwich, educators and the wildlife conservation community, LEO ZCC has enjoyed a five-year educational relationship with Sacred Heart University (SHU) through the school’s Biology Department. As a result, SHU biology majors have experienced unique opportunities to visit and work with the zoo’s inhabitants and professional staff through the Department’s animal behavior, conservation and other undergraduate classes.  

That relationship includes summer internships, job shadowing and class trips to the Conservation Center to study animal behavior and conservation and offers students not only chances to meet these creatures, but also opportunities to learn how to feed and care for their needs, says Jennifer Mattei,  professor of biology. The non-profit Conservation Center concentrates its efforts on breeding rare species and educating the public about the need for habitat preservation. 

“LEO ZCC, and its director, Marcella Leone, offer our students an extraordinary opportunity to learn how to study animal behavior and gain skills in developing field methods for behavioral observation and data collection in a more controlled setting,” Mattei explains. “Students learn early on if they want a career in wildlife conservation and help conserve threatened and endangered species. Several students who have worked at the Conservation Center have gone on to veterinary school, and one SHU alum works full time for Marcella and now helps care for Sandy Hope.”

This summer, SHU is offering a new course based at LEO ZCC entitled “Primate Behavior and Conservation: The Importance of Zoos.” This introductory course is open to majors, non-majors and advanced high school students. The primate community at LEO Zoological Conservation Center includes Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, White-Handed Gibbons, Siamang, Orangutans, White-Faced Saki, Dusky Titi Monkey, Bolivian Squirrel Monkey, White-Faced Capuchin and Guerreza Colobus Monkey, says Leone, the Center’s founder and director.

“My personal goal, beyond protecting and learning as much as possible about the magnificent animals we’re privileged to care for, is to create as many future conservationists as possible, and raise awareness and funding to support efforts to protect and perpetuate these endangered species,” Leone stresses. “Some people are born animal people and may want to become veterinarians, which is terrific. But there also are numerous other less-traditional choices, such as research, field studies and working for state and government programs and departments such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We want students to be aware of those options as well.”

LEO ZCC, Leone says, conducts conservation-based research and offers job shadowing, internships and hands-on learning. Their specialty is breeding animals for zoos across the world, as well as release programs. The conservation center is private and only allows visitors from select schools and conservation programs, field researchers and a small private membership that provides economic support. Spreading the conservation and protection messages, she says, is of prime importance, as is education and finding partnership and outreach opportunities.

Leone is particularly proud of the unusual and wide variety of primates and other species. The conservation center’s mission includes limiting visitors so outsiders have a minimum impact on the wildlife. “Zoos lock animals out of their ‘quiet places’ so they’re on exhibit, available to the public,” she says. “We don’t do that here. We have large spaces and relatively few visitors, so our animals are not numb to guests and act more naturally, which is better for student observation and enrichment. We try to make this a wonderful experience for students and for the animals we care for and protect.”

This year, Leone concludes, the Conservation Center is offering “special-cause” programming to benefit Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the Newtown shootings. The Center’s educational programs are open to other schools besides Sacred Heart, but she enjoys the relationship with SHU, has a lot of respect for its programs and faculty and looks forward to future student visits and programs. Anyone interested in learning more about the Conservation Center and its programs can visit www.LEOzoo.org.