I Got Your Back, Baby

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!

Ms. Becky Kier, a Senior Keeper in the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit, or NACU for short, may have the coolest job in the world. Why? For twenty-six years and counting, she has had the amazing opportunity to care for many different types of mammals at the San Diego Zoo. Her job is very similar to an ICU or human nursery, as it provides case-specific care for animals in need. The profession seemed to be the perfect blend of veterinary work and animal interaction, with the bonus of getting to spend the days with the only thing cuter than human babies… animal ones!

Keepers in the NACU might have one of the most rewarding jobs in the entire Zoo, but it is also definitely one of the hardest. At times, Ms. Kier works long and unpredictable hours caring for extremely unstable animals. However, the reason her job is so rewarding is the same reason why it’s so difficult: successfully assisting a baby in the NACU means not only overcoming great odds in many cases, but saving a life.

There are many reasons nursery keepers get involved with the care of young animals, but the most common are injury or infection, maternal neglect, maternal death, conspecific abuse (aggressive behavior between members of a group), or an inadequate milk supply. In any of these cases, NACU keepers will provide what the mother does not or cannot in order to give the offspring a fighting chance, much like doctors in an ICU that help support a baby until it is strong and healthy enough to be cared for by its mom. Generally, keepers try to assist the animals using little interaction, and also try to be as close to their exhibit, and family as possible. This is especially true in the case of hoof stock, which rarely ever enter the nursery and instead are cared for in their exhibit. Keeping the young animals close to their families introduces them to the sounds and scents of their world early in life, and also allows the group in the exhibit to adjust to its new member and vice versa. However, carnivores such as tiger cubs are cared for in the NACU for the first few months of their lives because they generally require more intensive care than hoof stock. They then are moved to be closer to their animal mommies.

The keepers in the NACU truly do it all from feeding to bathing to administering medications, depending on the individual animal, their condition, and their needs. Their routine is incredibly hectic. If they are needed to help with a litter of meerkats they would need to mark the litter with grease pens so they know who’s who, feed the babies, weigh them, take their temperature, feed them again, clean bottles, make formulas, and even burp the young animals. With all their tasks, it is incredible keepers can keep it all straight, but they do, adhering to a strict schedule and working efficiently.

Ms. Kier and her team help to care for the Zoo’s babies just like doctors in our world do. They work around the clock to successfully assist newborn animal babies and the rewards that come with their job are unmatched by any others. Ms. Kier plays an active role in species conservation every time she goes to work and helps to sustain a life. Every time she is a part of assisting a newborn, she gets to know that she has not only made a difference in one animal’s life, but also contributed to the conservation of that species as a whole. And, after all, I can’t think of anything better than being recognized by a tiger, cuddled by meerkats, or loved by a fossa, all very wild animals that have a soft spot just for you because you once helped them in a time of need.

Haley, Real World
Week Six, Fall Session 2013