Research takes student to the tigers' den

Tiffany Girado studies tiger behavior at Six Flags
Rachel Stengel '14

During her independent study, a typical day for Tiffany Girado included greeting the elephants and rhinos as she drove her car through the 350-acre animal preserve at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari to her research destination — the tiger enclosures. Armed with a camera, notebook and pen, she was poised to observe a male and female white Bengal tiger as they entered their outdoor enclosures for the day.

The senior marine sciences major has always had an interest in wildlife, particularly tigers, and wanted to use her three-credit research project to learn how science may impact the future of the endangered species. Girado studied the tigers' behavior as she introduced them to two distinct scents — vanilla and cinnamon — and when the scents were not present. The scents act as environmental enrichment devices (EEDs), which are any improvements made to a captive animals’ environment including social, physical and sensory changes.

"My hypothesis is that the EEDs will cause the two tigers to increase their hunting behaviors and explore their surroundings to a greater degree," she says. "The goal of these EEDs is to enrich and increase the animals’ behavior."

After three months of research, she's still crunching the numbers, but based on observation alone, Girado is hopeful her hypothesis was correct.

"I observed that the tigers were overall more active when the scents were added to their environment," she says. "My data analyses might reveal if there is any statistical significance in the amount of active behaviors for non-scent days versus scent days, as well as if there is a correlation between some behaviors with either one or both scents."

The unique engaged learning experience with Six Flags has blossomed into a pilot program for student research projects. Dr. Gabriela Smalley, associate professor in the Department of Geological, Environmental, and Marine Sciences (GEMS), and Dr. Kathleen Browne, GEMS chair, were connected to the Six Flags animal training staff through Rider alumna Megan Tutera '98.

"We interviewed some of [Tutera's] colleagues to learn more about what preparations our graduates might need to get involved in training and managing animals," Browne says. "As a result, we decided to pilot a program that allowed some of our students to run research projects and the results have been great."

Miranda Rosen '17 and Kelly Catino, senior environmental science major, studied seal and buffalo behavior during the spring semester as well. Browne is proud of the students' work as it allowed them to develop real-world studies through guided research.

"Tiffany has done a valiant job of making the project work, completing her observations, and collecting and organizing her results," Browne says.

Undertaking an independent research study while being a full-time student has proven challenging but rewarding for Giardo. She attributes much of her success to the supportive guidance from her adviser, Browne.

"This experience has been very eye-opening, and Dr. Browne has been a great help throughout it all," she said. "As this is my first time working on a project like this, there have been times where I have felt overwhelmed. However, she’s done a great job suggesting what I could do next and taking me through every step."

Girado says the project has been an invaluable learning experience for her future career after college.

"My career goal after graduation is to first find a job that will allow me to pursue my passion for animals, whether that’s working at a veterinary practice, zoo, aquarium or sanctuary," she said. "Once I have gained some experience, I would like to continue my education and get my master's and eventually apply to veterinary school."