Working on the Wild Side

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work directly with fascinating animals, such as giraffes and rhinoceroses? If you were a mammal keeper, you would be doing just that on a daily basis. On our last day of InternQuest, we met with Senior Mammal Keeper Torrey Pillsbury and Mammal Keeper Jennifer Minichino at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We learned all about their amazing jobs and what it takes to get to where they are.

Mrs. Pillsbury’s day starts in the forage warehouse. The warehouse is used to hold food for the animals such as Sudan, Bermuda, and alfalfa hay, and assorted sizes of pellets. Then she goes out to count the animals to make sure they are all still there. She tells the animals apart by notches and tags on their ears. These correspond to numbers, which keepers have to be able to read quickly, especially if the animals are moving, or they are being observed through binoculars. The animals are tagged using a tool that looks roughly like an industrial-sized ear-piercing device. The tags come in different colors, such as red, yellow, and orange, which represent different numbers. The notches and tags are put on the animals at birth.

One important part about Mrs. Pillsbury’s job is updating the keeper “red book,” which is used to record observations about the animals, information about their feeding, and any abnormalities. Her job changes every day, and she is often moving from one area to another. The people who work in her area after her may not know what went on the previous day, or changes that occurred with the animals, so it is vital that everything is recorded in the red book. Keepers move from area to area so that they can learn about all of the animals. This is also useful training in case they need to stand in for others.

Mrs. Minichino was first a penguin keeper at SeaWorld. She then worked at vet hospitals for several years before becoming a keeper. Mrs. Pillsbury began her education at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, as she wanted to become an agriculture teacher. She then realized that she wasn’t sure that was what she wanted to do, so she transferred to Grossmont College. She has an incredible wealth of experience! She grew up being a member of FFA and had many animals. She first became affiliated with the Safari Park when she received a call about an opening. She got a position running the horse show. Later, she worked with the elephant show for several years. After quitting, she trained horses for a while before coming back and becoming a keeper. For many departments at the Safari Park, you don’t have to have a particular degree, but one in animal science helps. Her favorite part of her job is being able to be around the animals. She is lucky enough to be outside so often, working with many types of mammals, such as okapis, gorillas, and gazelles. Her least favorite part is having to work in the rain every once in a while.

Being a keeper is such a rewarding job. People like Mrs. Minichino and Mrs. Pillsbury are able to work with amazing animals every day. Although they often work holidays and weekends, it’s worth it to be able to work so closely with these animals and to be able to help them thrive. They are able to learn from the animals and experience things that most people never do. Keepers are very important to the Safari Park; it’s vital to have them around.

Molly, Careers Team (Week 6)