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Feature

Ryan Driscoll with a dog.

U junior Ryan Driscoll is majoring in ethology--the study of animal psychology and behavior--by combining courses from psychology and life sciences through the Inter-College Program.

What makes them tick

Student Ryan Driscoll explores the reality behind "iconic animals"

By Megan Gerst Rocker

September 17, 2007

University junior Ryan Driscoll's true love has always been animals and animal behavior. When other kids went for bike rides or spent time playing in the park, Driscoll went to the zoo. "When my parents said 'let's go for a walk,' I took that to mean, 'let's go to the zoo.' The zoo WAS my walk," he says.

Then, as part of a civil service project in high school, Driscoll began volunteering at Paws & Claws, a Rochester, Minnesota, animal humane organization. He later became a paid staff member.

"I had an opportunity to work one-on-one with dogs and people," says Driscoll. "I worked with animals that had behavioral issues, dogs that were joys to be around, and dogs that just needed a little TLC to turn them into wonderful pets. Plus, I got to help potential owners find the right dog for them. It helped lay the foundation for a future career."

Entering the U, Driscoll needed to design a cross-collegiate major that let him combine his interests and outline a career path. So, through the College of Continuing Education's Inter-College Program (ICP), he is studying ethology--the study of animal psychology and behavior--by combining courses from psychology and life sciences.

"Every 20 years or so, certain dog breeds become vilified in society," he says. "Right now it's pit bulls--but back in the first part of the 20th century, they certainly didn't have that reputation...remember Petey, from 'Our Gang'? He was a pit bull. And an icon."

"The ICP worked out well for me," he says. "When I first started working with Amy [Brewster, Driscoll's adviser], she pushed me to think about today--and tomorrow. She had me look at graduate school requirements... [and] she had me ask myself 'why am I interested in this, what can it tell me, and what can I do to take my interest to the next level?' "Had I done an ecology, evolution, and biology major I would have missed out on a lot of the psych classes I needed--and ended up taking a lot of biology classes that I didn't need. It's that kind of direction that was so helpful in figuring out my academic path."

It was his honors adviser, Josh Borowicz, who helped Driscoll focus his interests and understand what connected them together. "I was intrigued by domestic dogs--their behavior, training, history, et cetera," he says. "But I also never shook [a childhood] fascination for the animals of Australia, particularly the ones that really stand out...dolphins, marsupials, dingoes."

Working with Borowicz, Driscoll realized he had an interest in what he calls "iconic animals"--animals that are held in a certain regard by a society and are frequently represented in folklore or other customs. It's an interest, he explains, that "fits well with numerous career options and research themes."

For instance, he has worked on a paper for his honors research about the "bad breed" concept. "Every 20 years or so, certain dog breeds become vilified in society," he says. "Right now it's pit bulls--but back in the first part of the 20th century, they certainly didn't have that reputation...remember Petey, from 'Our Gang'? He was a pit bull. And an icon. Watching how breeds' reputations change over time (despite statistics), and how certain breeds fall in and out of favor is a real eye opener."

According to Driscoll, the ICP has given him the freedom to pursue any number of plans following graduation, including perhaps working with "problem" dogs. His ideal internship, however, would be working with dolphins and other iconic animals at the Minnesota Zoo. "That would really be living the dream," he says. "It would certainly take me full circle in life."