Summer Intern Enjoys Opportunities

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Michael gets intimately acquainted with the inside of a giraffe’s mouth during a Caravan Safari at the Safari Park.

As a kid, I used to visit the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park every summer with my grandmother, so you can imagine my excitement when I was told I would be conducting research here as a summer fellow through the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! Before arriving in June, I was contacted by my soon-to-be mentors, Russ Van Horn and Megan Owen, who outlined the details of the project I would be working on: collecting behavioral data from video footage of Andean bears.

Like many people, I had never heard about Andean, or spectacled, bears prior to this summer. So before traveling down to San Diego—I recently graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno—I made sure to read up on this often overlooked bear species. I didn’t find as much as you’d think. Surprisingly, relatively little is known about Andean bears, especially in the wild where it is often difficult to see them in the lush cloud forests they call home. Hence, the purpose of my project.

A camera trap still-frame shows an Andean bear mother and her cub resting in a tree in the Peruvian dry forest.

The video clips that I’ve inventoried and collected data from this summer were taken from a field site in Peru located in one of the few remaining tropical dry forests. The landscape allows for unparalleled viewing of the elusive bears and the chance to gain greater insight into Andean bears’ daily activity patterns, mother/cub interactions, and other behaviors. For further information on this project, see The Bear Necessities in Peru.

In addition to being involved with an amazing project that is drawing attention to the conservation of this threatened species—the Andean bear is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List—I have had a chance to witness the tremendous conservation, research, and animal-care efforts put forth by the entire staff here. Some of my experiences include:

• Watering over 10,000 native grass seedlings at the Skinner Reserve in Temecula (I can’t tell you how many watering cans I refilled and carried over two days.)
• Monitoring Bai-Yun and her new cub in the video room (The cub is definitely cuter than it was a few weeks ago if you haven’t seen it yet.)
• Visiting the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine while the veterinarians and technicians treated Houdini, the Zoo’s female Andean bear.
• Feeding a giraffe on the Park’s Caravan Safari (If you haven’t seen their tongues, they are incredibly long and quite slobbery)

Michael checks things out at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey.

This summer has provided me with so many unique and wonderful opportunities and experiences. I would recommend interning with the San Diego Zoo to anyone interested, especially with regard to the summer research fellowship opportunities. All you have to do is check out the San Diego Zoo job search site around the beginning of January when they post the applications for the Institute fellowships.

In a few weeks I will be leaving for Ecuador to volunteer teaching English, but I know I will always remember this summer. I hope to share some of the information I’ve learned about the bears with the children I meet, since they are fortunate enough to have Andean bears in their country, and perhaps volunteer with local conservation groups. While I’m down there, if I’m lucky I might just be able to catch a glimpse of an Andean bear!

Michael Forney is a summer fellow for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.