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The first graduates in Eastern Kentucky University’s baccalaureate degree program in Animal Studies will walk across the stage during Dec. 15 commencement ceremonies.
Housed in the Department of Psychology, the cross-disciplinary program – believed to be the first of its kind in the world – concentrates on non-human animals, their interactions and relationships with people, and the mutual influences that humans and non-human animals exert on each other’s existence, evolution and history.
That focus is what attracted Jennifer Shields of Lexington.
“I was drawn to the Animal Studies program due to its exploration of the human-animal interactions, the program’s direct connections showing how animals fit into every dimension of our lives,” she said. “I find it to be a truly innovative program in the sense that students explore the multi-faceted perspectives on animals.”
Shields, a graduate of Sayre High School, plans to continue her education after receiving her EKU degree by working toward a master’s degree in ecology or animal behavior. Her ultimate goal is to find a position in large cat behavior research and conservation.
“With so many members of the Panthera genus rapidly disappearing, we really need inventive individuals who can utilize their knowledge in the preservation of endangered animals,” she noted. “The best part of this experience was learning about animals beyond face value, beyond their anatomy and physiology. This degree program has been a great tool for understanding why some care and do not care about other species.”
Fellow program pioneer Marcy Franks, of Denton, will also go on to graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree in Animal Studies – she plans to focus on animal behavior and welfare, which is what first sparked her interest in earning the degree.
“I had been looking for a program that focused on animals, but wasn’t a typical animal science degree,” the Carter County native said. “I wanted to focus more on animal behavior. When I saw that EKU developed the Animal Studies degree, I knew it was going to be the right fit for me.”
The EKU degree program, which first offered classes in Fall 2010, incorporates applied fields, science and the arts and humanities and provides students with a means to become knowledgeable about animals and their relationship with humans from diverse perspectives, and simultaneously experience and learn from a strong, traditional liberal arts education, explained Dr. Robert Mitchell, professor of psychology, who developed the program and serves as coordinator.
Approximately 90 students are currently enrolled in the program, according to Mitchell, who attributes the program’s growth in part to students’ fascination with animals and the unique opportunity to spend a great deal of time with them that the program gives students.
“It is still the only major of its kind in the world,” Mitchell said.
“There does seem to be growing interest in Animal Studies,” he added. “Since EKU established the ANS major, New York University has created an Animal Studies minor.”
In addition to their broad-based liberal arts background, EKU Animal Studies majors are able to concentrate on specialized areas for particular careers they wish to target.
The choices it offers are not lost on its graduates.
Shields said she would advise anyone thinking about majoring in Animal Studies that “if they are considering a nonconventional career with animals and want to help, then the Animal Studies program offers numerous courses that can aid them in finding their career path, ranging from a journalist for certain publications to an animal behaviorist.”