MOORPARK — They've toiled in a virtual boot camp for the past two years: deprived of weekends and holidays, up by 5 a.m. and at work by 6 a.m., working outdoors whether it's pouring rain or 110 degrees.
But the two-year term was entirely voluntary, part of Moorpark College's unique program for animal trainers and zookeepers.
"This has to be something you really want or you can't make it," said Erin Bilderback, a 30-year-old student who graduated last week with 37 classmates, survivors of the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program.
Set on a 5-acre compound overlooking the college, the program has sent its graduates to zoos, animal parks and schools across the nation since it began in 1975.
"I bet you there's an EATM student in every state zoo or aquarium," said Mark Jardarian, manager of land animals at the New Marine World Theme Park in Vallejo, Calif. "It's very well known. I would be very surprised if someone in the animal training industry had not heard of Moorpark College."
A number of this year's graduates have already received job offers. One will be working at Sea World of Ohio. Another will start as a keeper at Disney's Animal Kingdom. And one student has found work at a San Antonio zoo.
With school over now, many are just starting to get used to the strange idea that they may actually have a social life outside the compound, which houses more than 150 animals.
Yet to get to this point, students endure what they often describe as a grueling two years.
"The first couple months, you're so tired you don't even know what day it is," said Toni Rael, 24, dressed in the program's uniform: a blue T-shirt with the program's lion logo and jeans.
Rael, who will soon start a job at Marine World, would arrive at the compound every morning at 6 to take care of animals such as a sea lion named Schmoo. She would sort out the bad fish, hook the buckets to her hip belt and hand Schmoo the decent smelt.
Afternoons found three students in the monkey cages raking up droppings.
In addition to the classes on animal behavior, management and training, students are also required to give tours of the facilities for schools and, on weekends, for the public.
Some see their jobs as translators. When a monkey is baring his teeth, he's not smiling. He's showing he feels threatened, the trainers tell the public. When a baboon makes a smacking noise with his lip, he's saying he likes someone.
When kids imitate the sound a gibbon makes, the gibbon makes more noise because he's annoyed at the response, said Rael, who tries to couch animal behavior in terms people can understand.
"That's like when your brother's friend repeats everything," she told one kid. "You know how frustrating it is?"
On top of that, there's the night duty assignments. For first-year students that can mean two nights a week in one of the compound's bunks.
They sort through food to make sure the next day's supply is ready, feed the nocturnal animals, make sure the reptile cage is a toasty 82 degrees and watch over sick animals.
They're also there to make sure no one breaks into the compound, and to make sure that no animals are trying to break out.
"Being an animal trainer is not a glamorous job; you do it for the love," said Rael, with a macaw perched on her shoulder, laughing with her on command.
In addition, students are responsible for raising much of the money to keep the program running. While the college district pays for teaching salaries and about $25,000 to $30,000 for operating expenses, the students raise another $75,000 to $100,000 a year to keep the place going, Wilson said.
For the past two years, the students have been working seven days a week at the zoo, with only two weeks vacation during the summer plus four holidays. Graduation comes as something of a shock.
"You're happy because you don't have to be here anymore, not that you don't like it," Bilderback said. "But this was your life for two years."
Hardships acknowledged, by the time students leave the program, they are "qualified to go into an entry position in just about any animal-care facility," said Gary Wilson, program director.
Jardarian says Moorpark College grads are employed all over Marine World. The park often picks one or two students each year from the program. Even the supervisor of the land-animal department, he said, is a graduate.
"They're very well prepared and know exactly what it's like working with land animals," he said.
Bill Brisby, a former Moorpark College instructor who once trained dolphins for the Navy at Point Mugu, began the program in 1975. It started with a few classes on wild-animal behavior and a trip to a wildlife animal park, then based in Fillmore.
Today it offers a number of courses in animal training and management, as well as the hands-on experience.
In the future, Wilson, says the school plans to add a sea lion section on three acres of hillside, along with a zoo that features a more natural setting for the animals.