The Doctor Is In

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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!

libby_W2_picEverybody has sick days, even animals living at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. When the animals are feeling less than their best there is an animal medical staff standing by to care for them at Harter Veterinary Medical Center located next to the Safari Park.

An animal could find himself in the hospital for anything from appetite loss to physical injury. According to Kristin McCaffree, a registered vet technician at Harter Veterinary Medical Center, the animals often hide their symptoms so they do not appear weak to other animals in their herd or group. Something that appears to be a simple fix could turn out to be something very serious because the animal is hiding the extent of their injury. In order to combat the secretive nature of the animals, the hospital has cameras stationed in each stall where patients stay. The cameras give vets and technicians the ability to observe the animals when they think nobody can see them. When the animals feel they aren’t being watched, they will often reveal the full extent of their symptoms, allowing easier diagnoses.

Many of the animals staying in the hospital need to be closely watched. In one enclosure lives a family unit of thick-billed parrots from Mexico. The unit consists of a father and his chicks. The mother parrot fell victim to a fungus called Aspergillus. The fungus is found naturally in the soil but when the parrots become stressed or their immune system is weakened they become susceptible to infection. Sadly, the mother parrot was unable to fight off the fungus, leaving the father to care for his chicks. Now, one of the chicks, a female, has been diagnosed with Aspergillus, but she is doing much better. The family will be able to move back to their exhibit soon, but they need to be closely watched to ensure everyone is 100% healthy.

Thick-billed parrots are an endangered species, so it is essential that the ones living at the Safari Park maintain their health. Thick-billed parrots once ranged from southern areas of Arizona and New Mexico south to Venezuela in South America. Now, they are found mostly in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of northern Mexico. The birds are victims of hunting and logging in their habitat and their bright coloring make them prime targets for illegal capture for the pet trade. By keeping the parrots at the Safari Park healthy and happy, it is ensuring their survival and increasing their chances for reproducing more chicks to help the species. Without the hospital, it would be much more difficult to help the birds when they fall ill.

As a registered vet technician, Ms. McCaffree wears many hats. She described her job as one that is like that of a human nurse. When she is at Harter Veterinary Medical Center, Ms. McCaffree is giving medicine to sick animals, putting together prescriptions, administering vaccines, taking radiographs with an x-ray machine, monitoring anesthesia, assisting in surgery, and performing many other tasks. Not only does Ms. McCaffree ensure that the animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are healthy, she also works with researchers at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research to learn more about endangered species. Ms. McCaffree works closely with the team of researchers and even takes samples from animals for them to look at. The researchers can use their newfound knowledge to learn more about why a species is declining and better understand how to save them. Without Ms. McCaffree’s help, the road to helping an endangered species would become even longer and more difficult than it already is.

Veterinarians and registered vet technicians are essential to maintaining the health and ensuring the survival of the animals at the Safari Park. Ms. McCaffree explained her belief that since humans were the ones who encroached on the animals, depleting their resources and increasing their predators, we should be the ones to help them. If we don’t, they could disappear. By keeping the sick animals healthy and working in research, Ms. McCaffree is helping to ensure that endangered species have a greater chance of surviving for a longer period of time. The sick and endangered animals need not worry, because the doctor is in.

Libby, Conservation Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2014