Babies, Bottles, and Bassinets

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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!

Today, I met Senior Keeper of the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU), Kim Weibel, at the San Diego Zoo. The NACU, which consists of five keepers, receives baby animals whose parents are unable to care for them due to various reasons, such as maternal death and neglect, injury or infection at birth, and inadequate milk supply. The NACU’s main goal is to get these baby animals back with their family group as soon as possible. While caring for these babies may sound easy, it takes a lot of hard work, including night shifts and unpredictable hours based on need. Today, we got the rare opportunity to take a look inside the Nursery at the Zoo, and to learn exactly how Ms. Weibel and her team of keepers care for the vast variety of babies they receive.

Ms. Weibel introduced us to one of the many challenges the NACU encounters while caring for babies—choosing the right nipple for a bottle. Having the perfect-sized hole in a nipple is extremely important to the baby’s health, as certain babies suck too hard and can get formula in their lungs. Custom-made nipples are often required for babies, and therefore Ms. Weibel has this nipple-hole-making kit. The kit contains various sized wires to poke the correct-sized hole in a nipple, to keep a consistent flow. This way, Ms. Weibel ensures the babies in her care stay as healthy as possible.

Intern Madison is having her temperature taken by a laser-pointer thermometer. In the NACU, the temperatures of the babies are taken regularly. As an alternative to rectal thermometers, Ms. Weibel uses laser-pointer thermometers to take their temperatures. Laser-pointer thermometers are an easy, stress-free way for Ms. Weibel to track babies’ daily temperatures, and ensure that they are in healthy ranges for their age.

Inside the NACU, my fellow interns and I got an up-close look at the many enclosures required for the different stages in a baby animal’s life. Crawling spaces like the one pictured here are used for babies who are starting to move around and need extra room. These are specialized floor enclosures that have housed baby animals like felines learning to walk.

This enclosure is tall and large for baby apes to learn how to climb. It allows for greater mobility than cribs and floor spaces, which is essential to a growing ape. Throughout the year, visitors to the NACU may be able to spot a baby ape in this enclosure, such as a bonobo.

In certain cases, the babies the NACU receives are extremely young, and require time to develop in a human infant incubator, like the one in the isolation room. Human infant incubators are environmental chambers designed to control the temperature and humidity levels surrounding the baby, and to keep the baby developing properly. This incubator opens at the top for easy access to litters of animals.

The art of choosing a nipple for a baby animal goes far beyond the correct-sized hole. Each year, the NACU keepers receive a variety of animals, from apes and felines, to marsupials and hoofstock, all of which require specific types of nipples in order to drink their formulas. The key to finding the perfect nipple is looking at the mouth of each animal, and picking the closest-fitting nipple for the baby’s mouth. Ms. Weibel showed me just a few of the many diverse nipples stored in the NACU.

Interns Robin and Madison get down to business calculating the amounts of ingredients and daily feedings for a gazelle baby. Determining the formula for a baby animal is not always easy, as the keepers of the NACU have had to invent their own on occasion. Making a formula includes many mathematical calculations, such as the gastric capacity of the animal (how much food fits in its stomach), the percentage of body weight per day, and formula recipes. A booklet in the NACU lists the ingredients for many different formulas. The calculations for these formulas are very important. As Intern Robin said, “This is a baby’s life at stake!”

Intern Morgan proudly holds her finished formula for a baby gazelle. After calculating the ingredients of the formula, the interns measured, sifted, and mixed the ingredients together to make this finished product, which had to be given an expiration time and date. The powder mixed with the goat milk in this formula had to be carefully sifted in to ensure that no balls of powder remained in the final product, which could block the baby’s throat.

Human babies are not the only babies who enjoy stuffed animals! The Zoo NACU has many donated stuffed animals which the keepers use as surrogates. Surrogates are stuffed animals which animals like monkeys enjoy holding onto and snuggling, a behavior that mimics babies holding onto their mothers in the wild. As long as a stuffed animal is sturdy, and lacks ribbons or bows that babies could ingest, they are acceptable surrogates. There is a whole cabinet in the Nursery full of these fluffy stuffed-animals.

Ms. Weibel snuggles a former NACU baby, Isa the fossa. While many animals raised in the NACU are destined to return to their family group, some animals like Isa are trained to become animal ambassadors. This training in the NACU involves making the baby familiar with harnesses and leashes at a young age, and gets the baby comfortable around many people. Even though NACU-raised animals eventually leave the NACU, they still respond to their NACU moms and dads. Isa certainly had a soft spot for Ms. Weibel, who cared for him as a baby. Through the NACU, and the efforts of Ms. Weibel and her staff, animals like Isa can be given a second chance at life.

Thalia, Photo Team
Fall 2012, week five