Another Mother

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!

victoria_W6_picWhen you think of your mother, what do you think of? Maybe you imagine your mom making your breakfast for you in the morning or taking you to the doctor. At the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU) at the San Diego Zoo, Senior Keeper Kim Weibel carries out the same tasks, but as a “mom” for exotic animals, from wallabies to clouded leopards.

Zoo animals are normally raised by their animal parents on exhibit, but sometimes animals are injured or neglected by their parents and end up in the NACU. Ms. Weibel, acting “mom” for these Zoo babies, starts her day by checking on all the animals in the NACU and taking their weight and temperature. She must then make the perfect formula for each of the animal’s specific dietary needs. Formulas are made from existing commercial products. For example, Esbilac, the formula used for puppies before they are able to transition to solid food, is used for bears. Enfamil, the formula used for human infants, is used for primates. Most formulas are a combination of the two. Each animal has a special recipe created by the Nutritionists at the Zoo. Along with preparation and feeding, NACU keepers are also responsible for giving the animals their medicine, keeping records of the animals’ behavior and health, and sterilizing all of the equipment used throughout the day.

Ms. Weibel emphasized how every day is unique. Each animal is in a different situation and requires specific care. Tinka, for example, a wallaby joey, weighed only 70 grams when she was abandoned by her mother. Ms. Weibel came in and raised Tinka until she was healthy and ready to be moved back to her exhibit. Some people may not like the unpredictability each day offers, but this variation is Mrs. Weibel’s favorite part.  She enjoys the challenge that comes with working with dozens of different species of mammals and being responsible for them.

Along with having quick math skills and being detail-oriented, patience is a key requirement for becoming a NACU Keeper. Ms. Weibel completed her education at Iowa State University with a major in species communication and a minor in zoology. Even though she knew she wanted to work with animals, the exact position she wanted wasn’t clear to her. This led her to an internship at a zoo in Minnesota. She then worked for the Education Department at the San Diego Zoo. After studying spotted hyenas in Kenya, she began working in the Mammal Department at the Safari Park and became a keeper at the Zoo’s NACU in 1995.

Just like any mother, Ms. Weibel is always concerned with the animals’ future. Once babies are ready to leave the NACU, keepers sometimes monitor and train them in their “howdy” pen within the Zoo. A “howdy” pen is an enclosure that is next to a regular exhibit, allowing the animal to become comfortable with the keepers and the new surroundings. These pens allow the animal to interact with the other animals in the exhibit while still having access to a protected area. Eventually, the keepers’ goal is for the baby to join the rest of the group. When this happens, the NACU team, like a group of proud “moms,” can see the reward of their hard work.

Whether she is feeding, cleaning, or providing non-stop care for the animals in the NACU, Ms. Weibel ultimately assumes the position as a temporary mother for the young animals. Although it is not an easy job, nothing beats being a mom.

Victoria, Career Team
Week six, Winter 2013

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