In the Field

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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 job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

The wide open exhibits of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are a familiar sight to all who visit there, but this vast expanse of territory needs to be monitored and maintained for the well-being of the animals. That’s where people like Ms. Torrey Pillsbury and Mr. Dave Moore come in. They are both Senior Mammal Keepers at the Safari Park, two of the most hardworking people I’ve met. They cover a large variety of roles, but the overarching theme of all their responsibilities is to care for the animals through direct contact and observation. They are the boots-on-the-ground force of the Safari Park operation, getting down and dirty to make sure that the animals housed at the Park are safe and healthy.

Keepers like Mr. Moore and Ms. Pillsbury fulfill many roles around the Park in support of the animals. Entire teams of keepers like Ms. Pillsbury and Mr. Moore arrive at the Park at 6:00 am sharp and sometimes have to stay late into the afternoon. Each crew of 7-8 keepers work “runs” or circuits around the Park, which are their specific responsibility. They do a little bit of everything, including raking up poop to keep the exhibits clean, delivering food to the animals, and counting the animals of each species to track population fluctuations. Some of these tasks were demonstrated to the interns during our visit, and we observed as both zookeepers tossed or handed browse (delicious leafy branches), biscuits (like big nutritious goldfish), yams, and apple slices to the animals we passed, who happily munched away. But these treats do more than keep the animals’ tummies full – they help the keepers build positive relationships with complicated and often unpredictable animals they are charged with. Sometimes hand-raised animals can be aggressive towards people due to their lack of fear of humans, whereas naturally raised animals can be skittish and hard to get close to. Finding the right balance of friendliness and respect with her animals is one of the most difficult parts of her job, Ms. Pillsbury said.

Once this positive relationship with the animals is established, however, keepers’ other jobs get much easier. Keeping track of species populations within the Park is one such task that benefits from being able to comfortably get close to the animals. So close, in fact, that they can count the notches on the ears of some animals. These notches are arranged in patterns to represent a specific number, which is necessary to differentiate individuals within a herd of animals like gazelle and allows keepers to accurately take population counts of a species. Why is counting them such a big deal? Keepers need to know if an animal is missing – perhaps because it has been bullied out of the herd, or is injured – or even if an additional animal has been added, such as in the case of newborns. It is also important to be able to identify an individual animal if it needs specific medication or attention.  These field counts and other observations are carefully recorded in giant notebooks. Management logs and birth histories are kept in the “Black Book,” and other observations are taken down in the “Red Book”. Attention to detail is a critical part of Ms. Pillsbury and Mr. Moore’s job, and can mean life or death for an injured adult or fragile newborn.

Being a keeper is not a pretty job, or an easy one. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to keep the Safari Park running, traits which these two seasoned keepers both exemplify. Both keepers have been working with the Park for dozens of years, slowly working up from entry-level positions to the profession which they now have. So what’s the point of all this hard work? Why do it? First and foremost comes our responsibility to protect the animals in our care. This means protecting them from injury, illness, and even the potential aggression of their own exhibit-mates. Then, as hundreds of animals come and go from the custody of our Park, our healthy specimens contribute to a global effort to conserve and possibly reintroduce these beautiful animals into the wild. This big picture view is what ultimately drives the keepers’ work, but the best part, Ms. Pillsbury said, is being able to look at a group of healthy, happy animals and say proudly, “I did that.”

Laura, Careers Team
Week 6, Fall Session 2013