UNC Day at the Zoo

Brian Aucone

Brian Aucone, vice president of animal collections at the Denver Zoo and a UNC alumnus, speaks to the nearly 200 people who attended the first-ever UNC Alumni Day at the Denver Zoo. Related: Video highlights and photo gallery at end of the story.

A longstanding working relationship between a UNC professor and one of his former students resulted in a unique opportunity at the Denver Zoo recently for University of Northern Colorado alumni and other members of the UNC community.

Nearly 200 UNC alumni, faculty, staff, students and their friends and family members were on hand July 22 for the first-ever UNC Alumni Day at the Denver Zoo, organized by the Alumni Association in conjunction with the help of UNC alumnus Brian Aucone, the zoo's vice president of Animal Collections.

Aucone and UNC Professor of Biology Stephen Mackessy were featured speakers during the event's luncheon. Both spoke of their love and passion for animals that has kept them in contact since Aucone graduated in 1998 with a bachelor's degree in Biology.

Aucone explained that a shared affinity for reptiles - Mackessy is internationally known for his research on venomous snakes - is just part of their ongoing connection.

When Aucone landed an undergraduate internship at the zoo, Mackessy helped make it possible for him to receive elective credit toward his degree, a new concept at the time.

"He's the one who was willing to go to the head of the biology department," Aucone said of Mackessy's assistance in convincing the department chair to grant special permission for the elective credit.

Aucone parlayed the internship experience and the knowledge from his degree into a full-time job at the zoo for two years after graduating. He then moved on to zoos in Dallas and Oklahoma City before returning two years ago to the Denver Zoo, where he's now responsible for the care of more than 3,500 creatures.

Since then Aucone and Mackessy have continued to keep in touch through email and phone conversations. Anytime the zoo has a surplus of venomous snakes, Mackessy is the first one Aucone calls.

And recently, they've been talking about how to get more undergraduate UNC students involved in research and internships at the zoo.

"Research is not just for graduate students," Mackessy said. "At UNC, undergraduate students across the campus have the opportunity to work on novel projects with faculty."

In addition to the luncheon presentations by Aucone and Mackessy, Zoo Day included a special tour of the Toyota Elephant Passage, the zoo's new $50 million exhibit for Asian elephants, Malayan tapirs and greater one-horned rhinos; a meet-and-greet session with a red-tailed hawk, a hedgehog and other animals; and plenty of free time to enjoy the zoo's other 600-plus species.

- Reporting by Sara Regan, Senior Sport and Exercise Science Major

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Browse additional photos on the Alumni Association's Facebook page.

Creative Credits
- Reporting by Sara Regan
- Still photos courtesy of Jesse Clark
- Video footage courtesy of Michelle Fargher Clark
- Video editing by Amy Dressel-Martin