Tending Loving Care

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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!

marcel_W6_picBabies require constant care and attention from their parents to be healthy and happy. Babies at the San Diego Zoo are no different. Sometimes in the animal world babies don’t get the proper care they need from their mothers. When this happens at the Zoo, keepers spring into action and deliver the baby to the nursery, where the 24/7 on-call staff can begin giving the animal the assistance it needs. We had the incredible opportunity to meet Ms. Kim Weibel, senior NACU keeper (Neonatal Assisted Care Unit), who told us about the remarkable journey taken by baby animals that start their lives at the Zoo’s NACU. There are many different reasons, from injury to parental neglect that might cause a baby to move to the NACU. Once the NACU receives the baby they treat it just as a hospital would treat a human baby, with constant surveillance and care. Tasks at the NACU range from feeding the animal carefully constructed diets, to helping very young animals regulate their digestive system by stimulating the release of excrement and urine.

Whether a baby ends up at the NACU due to poor health, maternal neglect, maternal death, or too much competition for food, the NACU staff provides them with a head start in the right direction. Ms. Weibel carefully measures out ingredients to make the baby animal formula. She must ensure that the ingredients and proportions are exactly what the Zoo nutritionist order to keep the baby in good health. Ms. Weibel administers medication to animals who might be sick, keeping careful record of what is done. Caring for animals in the NACU is not always predictable and easygoing. There are many variables that can add extra steps to Ms. Weibel’s day. For example, if an animal is brought to the NACU and is underweight, it might require more monitoring and medical treatment than other nursery animals.

Eating is just as important for animals as it is for people. The most important part of a NACU animals’ feeding is giving the animal the proper formulas. Since formulas for each Zoo animal aren’t commercially available, the Zoo nutritionists have the task of developing formulas using preexisting human and animal formulas. Once a formula has been developed, making the nipple is next on the list. How do keepers make a nipple for every shape and size of animal that comes through the NACU’s doors? By taking pre-made nipples that do not have holes, Ms. Weibel can use a heated sewing needle attached to a string and make a hole. Varying the width of the string allows for different hole sizes; the nipples are then tested to make sure it will allow the animal to feed properly.

Remember when your math teacher told you, “This is important, you may need it later in life”? Ms. Weibel’s career uses a lot of math. After a formula and nipple have been designed for an animal, Ms. Weibel calculates is the gastric capacity of the animal, which can be found by multiplying the weight in kilos by 50.  “Gastric capacity” is the measure of how much food an animal can eat at a time. Overfeeding an animal can be dangerous, so animals at the NACU are fed volumes of formula slightly below their gastric capacity.

After our tour of the NACU facility we were able to meet Isa, a fossa, who was cared for by Ms. Weibel. Isa went through the NACU as a baby because he was not getting the attention he needed from his mother. Isa is evidence that all the care and work that goes into taking care of animals at the NACU pays off. While watching Isa climb poles and jump from pedestal to pedestal, I was amazed that at one point in his life he needed Ms. Weibel. She helped him to become a very happy, healthy, energetic resident of the San Diego Zoo.

Marcel, Real World Team
Week six, Winter Session 2013