His future taking flight: A summer fellowship story

Through his World of Work Fellowship, Ori Cohen '24 spent the summer training birds at the Southwick Zoo.

Ori Cohen posed with Sydney, a colorful mccawPhoto/Mike Lovett

Ori Cohen '24 posed with Sydney, a photogenic macaw.

Ori Cohen ’24 has always had a passion for studying animal behavior. He spent his high school years volunteering at local animal shelters, retraining the dogs to become comfortable socializing with new people. It was here that Cohen discovered his ability to make a difference in the lives of these animals.

It wasn’t until coming to Brandeis that he realized this passion could become a career.

Through his World of Work(WOW) Fellowship, the biology major with a minor in psychology discovered their studies could be combined and applied to real world experience helping animals.

Cohen took the time to talk about courses at Brandeis, their favorite animals to work with and their goals for the future.

What made you choose the Southwick Zoo for your internship?

I’ve been interested in animal behavior for awhile, but wasn’t sure what path I wanted to follow in biology. I considered exploring careers in animal conservation, applying to medical school, and finding other animal behavior related opportunities. After discovering the Southwick Zoo’s Earth Limited program, a nonprofit conservation and education program, I knew it was the perfect fit.

How did the Hiatt Career Center’s World of Work Fellowship help make this possible?

The application process was relatively simple. After discovering Hiatt’s World of Work internship program, I completed the application questions online. That was the most time consuming part, as I wanted to make sure I was capturing everything. After doing that, I emailed the hiring manager at the Southwick Zoo and asked if she could write an employee letter of offer for me to send to Hiatt.

She was very kind and sent back the letter the very next day, wishing me luck. Overall the process was surprisingly quick and straightforward, which made it very accessible. I'm so grateful for it!

Ori Cohen training Ernie
Photo/Mike Lovett

Cohen training Ernie, one of the male eclectus parrots featured in the Aviation show.

What’s an average ‘day in the life’ in your internship?

I’m working in the bird department, caring for the parrots, macaws, eagle owls, and other small exhibits of larger species.

I work three days a week, primarily making sure the birds are thriving in their environment. This requires daily cleaning, refilling waters, and preparing food for each animal’s diet. We are taking care of a lot of animals, so we can’t skimp on their care. It’s important and fulfilling work.

We also do daily enrichment with the birds. Birds require stimulation, so we encourage foraging and other activities to keep them interested throughout the day. We incorporate play in creative ways through homemade props, making them search for things.

It’s interesting caring for the different species of birds. Our owls, for example, tend to be more aggressive to new people. I haven’t had an issue with them and actually have a fun time caring for them!

I also participate in two shows, working with macaws and parrots during the aviation show for zoo visitors. We teach visitors how we train our birds, show off their unique tricks and demonstrate actions that show off their natural behaviors in the wild.

Ori Cohen and Danielle feeding pongo, a unique brown feathered bird.
Photo/Mike Lovett

Cohen and his mentor, Danielle Poirier, Head Bird Trainer at the Zoo, feeding Pongo.

What has it been like working with these birds?

For all birds, you have to build a relationship with them. Some birds are pickier than others. Ben the macaw loves to say hello to new visitors, while some birds decide they don't like people from the start. I don’t hold it against them!

I think two of my favorite birds (it’s too hard to pick!) are Ernie and Pongo. I’ve gotten to work with Ernie, our male eclectus parrot, training him after each performance. He can say ‘hello,’ ‘peekaboo’ and can even make fire truck noises. Pongo the Red Legged Seriema, however, is the bird I relate most to because of his fun-loving personality. Everyone jokes that if I was a bird, I would be Pongo.

In three words only - how would you describe your internship experience?

Exciting, educational, and fun.

The program is exciting because while there is a routine, everyday is a new experience.

It is educational because I’ve learned so much from this internship. Going into the program I knew the anatomy of the birds and behavioral concepts because of my experiences in introduction to psychology, personality psychology, and all the core biology courses at Brandeis. I was able to teach other students in the zoo’s internship program how the parts of the bird make a difference in their abilities. For example, humans have larynxes while birds have syrinxes. This organ allows parrots and similar species to imitate human speech.

The combination of my coursework and experiences at the zoo have given me the ability to create programs for the birds, focusing on behavioral retraining. I’ve learned so much, but I also feel empowered that I have done some teaching as well.

The program is also fun. It’s a simple way to describe it, but I go to work everyday and get to enjoy myself working with the birds. Even through stressful moments I have a sense that I’m doing something good, helping these birds and making a difference.

What will be your biggest take away from this experience?

This experience helped me discover my future path. From learning about the animals to seeing the daily functions of working at a zoo, I think I’m now inclined to go down the path of zoo-keeping and animal welfare. I also have a better sense of what courses I will focus on for the rest of my Brandeis experience. Being a rising junior, I had this pressing stress of ‘what will I do for the rest of my life?’ After coming into this experience at the zoo and immediately loving it, I feel like that weight has been lifted.

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