Respecting Reptiles

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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 on the Zoo’s website!

jade_W4_picWhen most people think of reptiles or amphibians they envision sticky, slimy, or scaly creature that slither with the intent of injecting its poison. Reptiles often get an unfavorable reputation because they lack the “cute” and “cuddly” factor, but just because they aren’t as fuzzy as pandas doesn’t mean they’re not important. This week we had the pleasure of meeting San Diego Zoo Educator and Reptile Keeper, Peter Gilson. Mr. Gilson’s main goal isn’t to make people love reptiles, but simply to help them recognize how valuable they are to the environment and that they deserve our respect. I have to confess that I was a bit nervous on our tour through the Reptile House. After all, who wouldn’t be a little jumpy when being crowded through a small corridor surrounded by eclosures containing venomous snakes?  However, after hearing Mr. Gilson talk with such admiration and conviction, I came to realize that reptiles aren’t so bad after all.

Mr. Gilson eased us in to the world of reptiles by introducing us to Galapagos tortoises. As soon as we walked through the doors of their barn, these giant 500-pound reptiles slowly rose up, left their lettuce meal, and shuffled their way over to us. They stopped within a few inches of us and stretched their necks, hoping we would scratch them. Mr. Gilson explained that in the wild tortoises stretch their necks so birds can pick parasites off of them. In the Zoo, they love when keepers and guests pet and scratch them.

Even though they move slowly, it was still a little intimidating to see a bale (group) of huge tortoises scuffle towards us. Mr. Gilson assured us that we had nothing to fear and that tortoises are pretty friendly animals. He revealed that tortoises exhibit a lot of pet-like behaviors.  Just like a dog, tortoises love attention, often choosing to be with people instead of food. Just like a dog, tortoises can be motivated by food, especially brightly colored food like carrots, yams, and lettuce. Tortoises also like to feel secure and comfortable. Remember when you were little and if you didn’t pull the sheets over your head you couldn’t sleep? Well tortoises do the same thing, except instead of using blankets they like to huddle into a corner of a wall to feel protected. Interacting with these magnificent creatures helped calm the anxious members of our group (including me). We were then ready to move on to some of the more menacing reptiles.

Stepping into the Reptile House felt like entering a sauna. Reptiles are exothermic so the reptile facilities at the Zoo are kept at an average of 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Gilson took us through different sections of the Reptile House, showing us everything from the incubator, to frogs, to snakes. In the incubator room, eggs were kept in plastic food containers – which makes sense because if plastic containters can keep moisture levels right for your food, they can do the same for eggs. This room was not as hot and humid as the rest of the facility because most eggs need a fluctuation of temperature to develop. An intriguing tidbit of information Mr. Gilson shared was that the gender of sea turtles is actually determined by the surrounding temperature during a certain stage in development. This means that increasing global temperatures can potentially throw off the gender ratio – talk about an inconvenient truth. Animals like polar bears are often the “poster child” for global warming, but reptiles will soon be the most affected by global climate change. However, there are some things we can do. Reducing our use of fossil fuels can help lessen global warming and therefore help reduce temperature. We also learned some great, easy tips about helping reptiles and the environment when we visited the Panamanian golden frogs. By reducing the chemicals we use we can help our local amphibians, which in turn benefits us because amphibians keep pest populations in check. Doing simple things, like using eco-friendly fertilizer and not washing cars in the street, can help amphibians’ health and promote a thriving ecosystem.

Of course, we also visited snakes while at the Reptile House. Housing venomous snakes means having safety precautions, just in case the unlikely event of being bitten does occur. The Reptile House keeps anti-venom for every poisonous animal there is on grounds and whenever anyone handles a venomous reptile there must be another person with them. The keepers all recognize the importance of precautionary methods. Its always good to use the buddy system just in case something happens.

Even though I did not fall in love with reptiles after talking with Mr. Gilson, I did gain enormous respect and appreciation for these animals. Learning about reptiles took away the negative stigma that is usually associated with them. Most people have never taken the time to understand that reptiles have their own personality just like a dog or cat, but they do. For example, a Komodo dragon at the Zoo named Sunny is as affectionate as a golden retriever with his keepers. Reptiles even have similarities to us! The shingleback skinks, for instance, mate for life, essentially “marrying” their partner. See? Reptiles aren’t so different from our pets or us! Mr. Gilson’s motivation for educating the public about these animals is to take away the fear most people have and to get people to respect reptiles.

Jade, Real World Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2013