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 with the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU) at the San Diego Zoo, plays an important role in the development of all young animals that lack a suitable home with their families. Although lots of fun occurs while assisting adorable baby animals with their growth, Ms. Kier also faces lots of hard work to get these animals to a suitable stage for reintroduction to their families.
The NACU at the San Diego Zoo is made up of five full-time keepers dedicated specifically to neonatal work. The NACU steps in to assist baby animals who are either injured or have an infection from birth, are maternally neglected, their mother died in the birthing process, or other issues that would threaten the development of a healthy animal.
One of the first steps taken when an animal arrives in the NACU is determining the right nipple for feeding. The nipple chosen for an animal is normally based on the size of that animal, the smallest nipples being for little animals like meerkats and the largest nipples for animals such as rhinos. However, some animals are peculiar and will only use a certain nipple that may have to be custom made.
Once an animal is admitted to their care, NACU keepers have to think about the size of the nipple hole that would be most appropriate. This is very important because you need it to be big enough to make sure formula gets through but not too big that the animal accidentally inhales formula. This can cause a medical problem called aspiration pneumonia that is almost always fatal in baby animals.
Making formulas for the animals at the NACU is a big part of the keepers’ job, and it involves a lot of math. It is important to determine the right formula based on the gastric capacity (how much food an animal’s stomach can hold) and the percentage of body weight per day you are trying to get the animals to gain. Both these aspects affect the formula recipe, which is changing daily because the baby animal is constantly gaining weight.
Ms. Kier had the interns participate in a formula making session to experience the calculations and effort that go into making just one meal for one animal for one day. Everything must be done by hand, because if the formula was made in a blender, there could still be chunks, which could make the animal choke. In this picture, interns Laura and Joseph are working together to strain out the chunks of the mock formula that would ensure safety to the baby animal in a real situation.
Ms. Kier gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the NACU building. In doing so, she showed us some of the incubators, which animals stay in for the time immediately after they are born and until they no longer need to be in a heat-controlled environment. The specific incubator shown above is equipped for a marsupial with felt pouches. The pouches are meant to replicate the mothers pouch and comfort the baby.
Similar to the marsupial incubator, there are other incubators modified for other animals. This incubator is for meerkats because it contains a little box, which is partially covered to provide a sense of “protection” for the babies and make the environment as much like their real home as possible.
The NACU keeps all of their records for all the animals they currently have and have taken care of in the past. There are about 3 big filing cabinets full of records on almost every animal ranging from A to Z. The files, organized alphabetically, include information like weights, nipple information (type and hole size) and incubation temperatures. By keeping so many records, keepers can easily look back to them for reference when raising an animal they might not be as familiar with.
Ms. Kier has a special bond with Isa the fossa (who you can find in the Children’s Zoo) because she helped raise him as baby. Isa is also one of the Zoo’s Animal Ambassadors, meaning he is used for educational purposes. Although fossa’s have a reputation for aggression, Ms. Kier and some other keepers at the Zoo have formed a special relationship with him and interact with Isa on a regular basis.
Leslie, Photo Team
Week Six, Fall Session 2013