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 had difficulty getting kids to eat nutritious meals? Then you know first-hand one of the challenges of Associate Nutritionist Jenifer Parsons, one of three nutritionists at the San Diego Zoo. A Zoo nutritionist sets the diets for animals in the collection, and manages the diets of animals with health problems. However, that is not where Mrs. Parsons’ job ends. Not only must she prescribe diets to the animals in her care, but she also works closely with Zoo veterinarians and pathologists to ensure the diets she prescribes are up-to-date with the latest scientific data and food regulations. Mrs. Parsons’ job is a fairly new position in zoos, but is vitally important to keeping animals healthy, happy, and eating. After all, it takes serious skill to juggle the menus of the many picky eaters living in the San Diego Zoo.
Before her job at the Zoo, Mrs. Parsons got a Bachelors Degree in Animal Science at Colorado State University and a Masters in Zoology at Oklahoma State University. Before college, Mrs. Parsons worked as a vet assistant, cleaning cages and learning essential skills for her future profession. However, Mrs. Parsons didn’t always want to be a Zoo Nutritionist. While working as a vet assistant, Mrs. Parsons believed that she wanted to become a veterinarian, and went into college with that goal. In college, she realized the true extent of the jobs available related to working with animals, and found her niche as a nutritionist. Today, Mrs. Parsons is working on her PhD at Mississippi State University.
A day in the life of Mrs. Parsons is pretty cool. As she told me about her co-workers, “I get to work with a little bit of everybody.” Each morning, Mrs. Parsons goes on vet and hospital staff rounds, examining animals to ensure the prescribed diets are keeping them healthy. Paying attention to animals at the Zoo’s veterinary hospital is one of the easiest ways for Mrs. Parsons to ensure her diets are working properly. Hospital visits allow her to examine animals up-close while they are immobilized for other procedures. After her daily morning vet rounds, Mrs. Parsons meets with keepers who may have questions or are requesting changes to the diets prescribed for their animals. Mrs. Parsons has a lot of respect for the keepers, as they know their animals well, and can easily detect when their diets are not keeping them healthy. Her afternoons are usually spent writing and revising diet sheets for animals, which are detailed lists of amounts of foods animals receive on a weekly basis.
While the challenges are many, Mrs. Parsons sees them as the best part of her job. Each day, Mrs. Parsons must discover new and creative ways to ensure that animals are receiving the proper amount of nutrients to be healthy, yet are still eating their food. She must also discover ways to feed animals with diabetes, high cholesterol, and other diet-related health problems. Mrs. Parsons’ favourite task is researching new species and discovering what to feed them. This is a difficult challenge, as many times exotic animals have unknown diets. By looking at the natural history of these animals, using their closest domestic species as a model, and using the ingredients available in the Zoo, Mrs. Parsons can decide how to set an animal’s diet.
While being a Zoo Nutritionist requires critical thinking and hard work, it is also a rewarding job. Each day, Mrs. Parsons makes a huge difference in the lives of the animals at the San Diego Zoo. Nutritionists like Mrs. Parsons are changing the ways zoos feed their animals, one diet at a time.
Thalia, Careers Team
Fall 2012, week four