Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school student 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!
Nicki Boyd has one of the most interesting and interactive jobs at the Zoo as the Behavior Husbandry Manager. Her job is to develop and implement training programs with all of the different animals in the Zoo. This might sound like simply teaching an animal a behavior, or training a more aggressive animal to shift off exhibit, but there is much more to it than that. Her main goals are to prepare animals for physicals, medical procedures, transportation, and to ensure they are enriched in their daily lives. This contributes to their overall well-being. Her work with these animals can also have a direct impact on conservation.
So, how can animal training affect conservation? Many animals at the San Diego Zoo are part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP). The goal behind this plan is to make sure species in a managed care setting are maintaining a healthy genetic population. SSPs are world wide breeding programs that are designed to make sure that a species will survive. (Visit http://www.aza.org/species-survival-plan-program/ to learn more about SSPs.)
For SSPs to be effective, animals often need to be transported from one facility to another. This can be very stressful for an untrained animal. When an animal becomes stressed their health can become compromised, which is not good for the individual animal or the species as a whole. This is where Mrs. Boyd’s training comes into play. She trains the animals to move into crates and be relaxed when they are in them. Whether it is a trip in a truck or plane, the animals can be transported with a limited amount of stress. The lower stress levels will allow the animals a much smoother adjustment to their new environment. This may lead to more successful breeding, contributing to the conservation of the species as a whole.
In addition to preparing animals for transfers, Mrs. Boyd works very closely with the veterinarians and keepers at the Zoo in order to assist in animals’ medical care. When vets need to examine or treat an animal, it is helpful when an animal has been trained to willingly cooperate. Before procedures even begin, vets will ask Mrs. Boyd to create and implement a training plan. This plan may include a wide range of behaviors, such as signaling an animal to hold their arms and feet out, open their mouth to get a visual on their teeth, present all four sides of their body against fencing, hold still blood pressure monitoring or even offer their tail for blood draws. Mrs. Boyd has even helped to train Funani the hippo to have her tusks trimmed!
Mrs. Boyd plays a role in conservation every day. While working with the wide variety of animals at the Zoo, she has the opportunity to observe and document their behaviors. Scientists can take the information she collects and apply it to animals in the wild. When you look at an individual blood sample or a single training session, it may seem insignificant, but all of these practices add up to an amazing body of research, perhaps even offering insights that could help save a species.
By far, Mrs. Boyd’s biggest impact on conservation is educating the public. Some animals have the potential to become animal ambassadors, meaning they interact closely with the public. Ambassadors can be seen walking around the Zoo or with their trainers at animal encounter spots such as the Front Street Stage or the Children’s Zoo. Mrs. Boyd also helps to train the some of the larger animals who are part of the shows at Wegeforth Bowl. By giving people that one-on-one personal contact with the animals, they often feel a special connection with that animal. This connection may inspire guests to donate to the Zoo, find out more information about that animal, or even change their daily habits to include green practices that help animals and their environment.
Mrs. Boyd is a trainer but also a conservationist. Through animal training, she assists keepers, vets, and guests in interacting closely with animals. She allows keepers to work safely with the animals, the vets to examine the animals, and guests to experience up-close visits with the animals. All of the training that Mrs. Boyd does adds to the Zoo’s conservation mission.
Scott, Conservation Team
Fall 2012, week three