DES MOINES, Iowa — Beginning in the fall, Drake University will offer a wild new major. It’s partnering with the Blank Park Zoo and Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative to offer a Zoo and Conservation Science major.

Right now, Drake students can study zoo and conservation science as a credential within their coursework for another major. The upcoming change will have a major impact on Drake and it’ll help fill a big long-term need at the zoo.

“This is a program that is intended to prepare our students for work after graduation in animal-related conservation fields. So zoos are the most obvious example but also animal sanctuaries and rescues, rehabilitation facilities, government and private agencies that do conservation work in the field. It’s folks who want to work with animals and do conservation work,” said Michael Renner, a Drake professor of biology and psychology who is involved with the zoo and conservation program.

He’s been taking classes to the Blank Park Zoo for many years. Those students will soon get even more hands-on experience.

“When I talk to prospective students, I use the phrase ‘You’re going to get your hands dirty,'” he said.

Renner said the work will also help the zoo immensely.

“We try to give back,” he said. “We try to build student research projects around questions the zoo needs answered. And so we provide person power to do the research and that’s something the zoos have to be doing. We have to keep getting better at taking care of the animals and that’s a data question.”

Anne Shimerdla, the Blank Park Zoo’s president and CEO, said the zoo needs more qualified conservationists.

“Having students that come in with a background and especially the knowledge and the concept of research will be really critical as we continue to do our work here,” she said. “And we are always looking for ways to better improve our animal welfare for the animals that we care for here and to be more involved in the care of really keeping species alive in the wild.”

“Zoos are essentially a lifeboat in this world. The number of species that have been saved because there were populations in zoos after they went extinct in the wild is growing all the time,” Renner said.

He said zoos are doing very important conservation work that also has a major economic impact.

“There are many thousands of jobs and many billions of dollars in the economy that rely on this kind of work. So having folks who are coming into the profession who are properly trained to do the work is really critical,” Renner said.

He said though Drake’s Board of Trustees only recently voted to add the new major, he’s already hearing from prospective students from across the U.S.