Fun with Animal Friends

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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!

Interns followed Zoo Educator, Maya O’Connor, around the Zoo for an informative tour. We learned about her job and the animals she gets to work with. She introduced us to the animal ambassadors, many of which can be found right her in San Diego. In additional to the native wildlife, we were also given time with many of the larger animal species, including the very popular lion, giraffe, and camel.

Ms. O’Connor introduced Mussopo, a Virginia opossum, who is an animal ambassador for the San Diego Zoo. Animal ambassadors are used to visit schools, hospitals, and other locations to teach the public about the species. The interaction helps people connect with the species and also provides the animals with enrichment. (Enrichment is anything that helps to stimulate the animal mentally or physically.)

Mussopo can be found in San Diego since she is native to North America. She is a marsupial who carries her babies in a pouch and on her back. As an adult her tail is not strong enough to allow her to hang upside down from trees, however juveniles can. Mussopo was very food motivated, once her snacks were gone, so was her attention.

This Western Screech Owl is a San Diego native animal. It has good eyesight and excellent hearing due to the location of their ears. Their ears are not positioned symmetrically; instead one is higher than the other, allowing them to more accurately pinpoint a sound.

Ms. O’Connor wore a glove to protect herself from the sharp talons of the owl. These talons are used to grab their prey, which the owl ends up eating whole. After a meal, owls regurgitate pellets that are made of the indigestible pieces of fur and bone. It was our lucky day because Ojos actually did this for us!

Armando Santiago is a three-banded armadillo. He is a pretty handsome guy. Did you notice his blonde hair sticking out? Many people are surprised to discover that he is in fact a mammal and not a reptile.

Here Intern Thalia gets the opportunity to smell Armando’s unique odor. This is used as a defense mechanism to help keep predators away. Armando has no weapons for defense, his only hope is that he will smell and look unappealing to anything dangerous that walks by.

Armando Santiago, a three-banded armadillo, is the only species of armadillo that can completely form a ball. Even his tail fits into the puzzle! This keeps his organs safe inside and helps him look like a rock, or coconut, or some other inedible object.

One aspect of Ms. O’Connor’s job is leading an Inside Look Tour. This gives visitors a glimpse inside the Zoo world and helps to connect people to wildlife. I was surprised to learn how many species need more of our support and awareness is important.

During our tour we visited the lion exhibit. When Ms. O’Connor called his name, M’Bari the lion, roared and came over to say hello. Lions may be big cats, but they cannot purr. Their anatomy allows for roars, but not purrs. This makes them more intimidating and can be heard throughout the Zoo.

The masai giraffes here at the San Diego Zoo are the smallest species of giraffe. However, they are still very tall. They tower over people. In fact, a group of giraffes is called a tower.

Ms. O’Connor showed us how to feed the giraffes. Look at how long that tongue is! They use it to get leaves off of acacia trees for food. Those necks are long also. They have seven vertebrae in there just like humans do.


Ms. O’Connor’s admiration for the animals she works for is evident through her smile and enthusiasm. She never gets bored of her job as every day is different. As a Zoo Educator Ms. O’Connor is able to apply her desire to teach with her passion for animals.

This camel’s name is Mouse. Why? Because her mother’s name was Minnie! She is special due to her ability to take water from the fat in her food. The humps on her back are huge storage areas for fat. With this adaptation she can go for weeks without water.

Denae, Photo Team
Fall 2012, Week One